So, how are the libraries in Colorado? I’m only 20% kidding…
So, how are the libraries in Colorado? I’m only 20% kidding…
When I talk about teen librarians, I often bring up the idea that we are ‘all-arounders’ – many of us have the skills to work all over the library and a working knowledge of other aspects of public librarianship in our buildings, so that we can better serve young people. On any given day I might help a high school student with research for a project, then turn around and provide readers advisory for a fourth-grader looking for more challenging books to read. (I have thoughts on that for some other time.) I love when I get to pitch in on other desks – I can’t walk past a ringing phone or a line of people waiting for assistance, so I usually find myself ‘jumping in’ several times a day.
A side effect of this is that my colleagues get to know what I do better, in terms of service to teens. (It also means if they know I’m around but not on the floor, when teens are mostly in school, they’ll track me down for RA or tech help. I love that too.) Anyone who works in a public library should have an idea of how to engage and assist anyone, of any age, they might encounter in the community. Advocating for the needs and rights of teens is one of the most important things I do in my job. For me, that means helping my colleagues understand what’s going on in my department and in teen culture, modeling good strategies for supporting young people and knowing that the needs of all patron groups have to be considerately balanced. (It’s my job to push for teens, but you can’t change hearts and minds if you’re a bulldozer who only sees the validity of your own personal perspective on public service, or anything, really.)
Being an ‘all-arounder’ means some of my ‘other duties as assigned’ lead me to work and projects throughout the library. I love this, too. I am currently the staff lead on our interdepartmental Collections team which has been tasked to assess and improve how we order, arrange, and display our materials, as part of our ongoing strategic plan. I have regular hours on the adult Reference desk. I create and lead programs for tweens, which is technically (but fuzzily) under the purview of our Children’s department, and every now and again I find myself presenting to adults (including discussions and classes on the history of and/or training in social media, my beloved ‘How to Pick Your Oscar Pool’ talking head/yelling match with our fantastic film librarian, and my upcoming History of LGBTQIA+ YA literature, which I should be working on right now. Yeah.)
My most favorite ‘other duty’, though, is co-chairing our community reading program, One Book One Town (or, OBOT.) In fact, it is one of my favorite work things, period.
The goal of our version of this program is to get the town reading the same book at the same time, in the hopes of inspiring a community conversation. I’ve been privileged to be a part of OBOT since it began in 2006, and to have been helping to lead the initiative for eight of our ten years. It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long but looking at that image of all of our past titles, I guess it really has been.
I can, and could, and might write more about our process on this blog in the future, but for now, I’ll keep it brief: We only pick contemporary books, published in the current calendar year (since we present our event in the winter months, that means our 2017 book would have been published in 2016) and we insist that the author or authors come to town and speak at our big ‘signature event.’ For most people in our community, our choices are surprises – they are not classics, best-sellers or book club favorites, although a few have gone on to be some or all of those things. Some of our titles are challenging. Some are downright confrontational in their content or point-of-view. The only thing they have in common is that they get people talking with family, friends, and neighbors, which is our ultimate goal.
My favorite thing about my favorite thing is that we don’t look at OBOT as a default adult event that sometimes includes young people, but as a community event. That means we are careful to make the program (if not always our book choices) accessible to as many people as possible in town. (Finding one book for literally everyone in a community is impossible. There is no such thing. Understanding this, we take a longer view: We choose something radically different in style, tone, genre and/or age range, than the years before. Eventually, over time, everyone will find a book ‘for them’ in the ever-growing pile of past OBOTs, or so we hope)
We’ve chosen some fantastic youth titles, and in the years our books have featured decidedly adult content, we’ve reached out to younger readers and their families with companion titles, school visits and programming on themes presented in the book. Also, we’ve never told anyone a book is not ‘for them,’ though we have suggested that parents read the book first to determine if the book should be shared with their kids.
Young people are (or should be) a valued and vibrant part of their communities and society as a whole. This is an easy idea to agree with, but it’s not always explicitly practiced. I will never be able to take a break from advocating vociferously (and judiciously, I hope) for teens in the library and in the town. This ‘fight’ will never be over. There will always be more people to convince and cajole. There will always be some who think young people have less intrinsic value than adults because they don’t pay taxes, because they don’t vote, because they are inexperienced, because they are (sometimes) emotional and (sometimes) changeable, because they aren’t worth spending time and/or resources on since they are about to leave the community anyway, because if ‘I survived my adolescence without (whatever)’ they can too…and on and on (These are all things that I have been told over the years.)
For OBOT, I still sometimes have to remind people to keep our kid and teen readers in the picture – my fellow co-chairs (how have I not spoken about these two miraculous ladies yet! They are two of my favorite people on the planet. In addition to being consummate professionals, they are wonderful, patient friends. I know I take advantage of their grace, and I am grateful for their presence in my life in and out of work, daily.) and some of our team do so as a matter of course, but it will never be universally accepted by everyone. There will always be some people who consider a community project to be ‘for adults’ as a matter of course. Those of us who understand the power of including young people as equal participants in such things will have to keep on restating our case.
When people from other libraries ask about OBOT, or when we present on it, the best piece of advice I can give is to make sure you have a few youth services staffers involved in the selection process. Of course, I’m biased here, but I think youth staff have an advantage, in certain ways, over ‘adult-stuff-only’ readers. When we select materials as part of our work duties, we evaluate content and formats that (mostly) are not meant to appeal primarily to us, as adults. We make determinations on quality and popularity using criteria outside of own idiosyncratic tastes. In my experience, I’ve found it can be challenging for some grown-ups to assess the strengths of works that are somewhere outside their own individual preferences. The best readers advisors and selectors can, of course, but not every librarian, and not every purchaser, has this ability. (I am convinced it can be learned and that is why reading and viewing widely is so important.) It’s something that, unless one is confronted by it in a situation like this or another group-based selection process, one might not really think about.
Some people criticize youth books as reading ‘too juvenile’ or ‘too young’ for a community-wide choice. I find that to be an inarticulate (and irritating) way of dismissing titles, an assumed shorthand for ‘not good enough,’ an indication that they think books for youth need to clear some extremely high bar in terms of ‘quality’ (they must be revolutionary or utterly original, or word-for-word, literarily perfect) to really be worthy of OBOT – metrics that are not consistent with those used to consider ‘adult’ titles. It is an assumption that adult stories are just naturally higher quality, merit more serious discussion, and automatically have more clout, or gravitas, or whatever. For them, ‘Adult’ is more estimable than ‘Youth.’ A lot of people feel this way and I completely understand why. It’s one of our society’s default postures, and it exists to such a degree that many people don’t pay attention to this very real bias against youth and ‘kid stuff.’ If they do notice, it feels innocuous enough to make my point of view read as obnoxious or overblown.
I’m still (always) learning, but I have done my best to be a good ambassador for the concerns and interests of young people no matter where I go. I can’t help noting that our biggest successes – not just in terms of attendance or circulation, but the lasting positive effects of OBOTs-past – how readers talk about the books and events for months and years after they end – happen when we choose inclusive books that young people and families can share together. (The work of changing hearts and minds will never, ever be over. I’ve learned not to take it personally, but to always consider new methods and/or phraseology to help people understand where I’m coming from, and to meditate on the words of Dave Eggers:)
Last year’s OBOT was a dream: I nominated a book I knew the committee would never go for – I just wanted everyone to read it because it altered my perception of the world. It was wildly different than anything we’d ever looked at, let alone chosen. It was confrontational. It (on its surface, at least) would be more resonant with people who were not part of our established audiences, and it would definitely make some of our readers more than a little uncomfortable.
What did I know? I got to introduce Jon Ronson to the readers of Fairfield. It was one of the best days of my career.
(I often get to do the author introduction at our signature event. It’s nerve-wracking to spend the day racing to get ‘the show’ ready, only to turn and address a crowd of 600 or 700 people, wearing a fancy dress. But I love utilizing my theatrical background, not just in terms of performance but technical stuff like direction, lighting, and house management. See, Mom and Dad! It was a good decision to double-major!)
Our upcoming event is shaping up to be a dream as well, literally: For our tenth anniversary, we co-chairs (our fifth year doing this as a team) hoped to find an inclusive, celebratory book, specifically about REDACTED. We didn’t have a specific title in mind – it didn’t exactly exist, at least within of our parameter of extreme currency, but we thought, ‘wouldn’t it be nice if…’ It was a long and stressful (and slightly anarchic) selection process where nothing leapt out at us. Then, right at the end of our usual timeline for making a choice, it appeared: Something that is pretty much exactly what we had dreamed of as we closed out last year’s event. As of this week, it looks like we’re just about set, so it’s on: OBOT10 in 2017.
UPDATE: It’s Books for Living by Will Schwalbe and A Child of Books by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston! Two Books One Town, with our first picture book as an ‘Official Selection’ and not a ‘companion’ title.
Another Mystery Night (our fourteenth…wow) is done. It was a great installment of this annual spooky ‘haunted house/scavenger hunt’ shriek-fest: Full attendance, fun theme, everything where it needed to be for the game to work. (Another sweet thing: All my teen staff from both library locations in one place at the same time, which really only happens at this event!) The only minor issue was that our catalog upgrade which has made searching for items more intuitive for users makes for much easier gameplay: teams no longer have to enter in authors last name-first, or even spell things correctly for the desired item to turn up. What is great for our users is not so great for this once-a-year bibliographic instruction/after-hours live-action frenzy! There’s no real complaint there – just something to adjust for before I design the next one!
The basics of Mystery Night – it’s an annual, themed after-hours event where teens work in teams using the library catalog to search for items, following paths of clues leading from one item to the next through the library, with one team ultimately finishing first by finding that years MacGuffin.
Something else I didn’t anticipate: Usually our older teens (for this event, grades 10 and up) transition from playing the game to volunteering as ‘scarers,’ the performance element of this event, but this year’s group of sophomores, juniors and seniors…just…didn’t want to. They wanted to play. A lot of these teens also attend our Fandoms United group and at some point between our Friday fandoms session and Saturday’s event, they decided to split themselves up, knowing there are a set number of teens on each team so they wouldn’t all be able to play together. This was unprecedented and had a major impact on gameplay: Basically, each team had one or more experienced players (so we didn’t have a team or two made up entirely of inexperienced and hyped-up sixth graders.) The game went really, really fast. Too fast, it seemed. I plan for these games to take about an hour to get through and the eventual winning team, with some of those Fandoms ringers taking charge, was looking for the MacGuffin about 20 minutes in (ending the game way too early for the bulk of the attendees, and leaving me to scramble for a way to vamp until pick-up time.) Luckily, they couldn’t locate our loose cryptid for another half-hour, giving other teams a chance to catch up. In the end, we had four of six teams racing to finish first, with the remaining two teams in it, just a bit behind the others.
I keep meaning to put together a manual on how to do this program (or, our version of it – so many fantastic youth services librarians do similar things and have their own methods for success. That we can each approach an idea from different angles is one of the many reasons I love this job.) I will…I mean, there’s a tab for it up in the navigation, so I kind of have to.
For now though, I’m thinking about why it works, why it still draws an eager audience of teens that anticipate and return for it again and again, and why I get such a charge from planning and executing it, after all these years.
It’s a bit about tradition: There are certain things you can count on in libraries, no matter how we evolve and transform to meet the needs of our users. The best example I can think of is storytime. This is a generalization, of course, but I can’t imagine that a plurality of libraries would or will ever, as a core practice, ditch storytime. The format and content may change, but it is generally a pretty stable, universal (and mission-critical) ‘library thing.’ Our community regards Mystery Night as a tradition – a program that older siblings and acquaintances went to before our current cohort of teens could and it was an experience to look forward to. The format and content have changed, slightly, over the years, but the core practice, action and feeling of the event will not. I’m really proud of that. We’ve had long-running programs before but they all have, and will, fade away at some point in time. (I L-O-V-E my Fandoms group. We’ve just started our fourth year of weekly sessions. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever put together and I’m well-aware and perfectly comfortable with the reality that it won’t last forever)
It’s a bit about content: When it comes to programming, one of my mantras is that if they (your intended audience) can do it or get it at home, they will. This is partly because teens (particularly those in the age-range that makes up the core of program attendees) aren’t always in control of their own schedules or transportation options. But it is also because a lot people feel like this. I certainly do. (Most people think I’m an extrovert. But I’m truly an ambivert – I love working with the public and the fast pace of my job, but I tenaciously protect my alone-time away from everyone and/or anyone. I draw energy from both, depending on my mood.) When I am designing the specific elements of programs, I try to be conscious about providing the ‘something special’ that our audience can only get from the library-ness of it all. Our big events are built around this concept – from Mystery Night to Escape Rooms to any of our live-action games.
In the end, it’s mostly about rule-breaking: Or, subverting the traditional image of what ‘the library’ is. Those of us who work in and treasure libraries know that they are not (strictly) pristine and nearly-silent palaces of intellectual pursuit. However, in the imagination of the dominant culture at large, librarians are still stern and humorless ‘shushers’ and libraries demand quiet and serenity. (See: This commercial.) (See also, delightfully, this sketch – NSFW) Mystery Night leans into this idea of libraries and turns it on its head. Yes – players have to use the catalog and navigate the stacks to find stuff. But on this night, after the building is closed to the public, they do that familiar (in theory, if not in practice) search operation with the lights off and ‘things’ lurking in the (pun alert) inky dark trying to scare them and set them on tilt as they go about their mission. There is running. There is screaming. And there is giddy laughter, clever workarounds and librarians at the ready, some to help them if they struggle with their searches and some…dressed up like monsters (or whatever our theme calls for) waiting to creep them out.
This…is not library.
Except that it is. It’s their library. It’s our library.
It’s something unexpected, surprising, and delightful. It can be messy and it can be slightly dangerous (that running combined with some sharp corners: We always have plenty of staff working the event to rein it in as needed, especially with those giddy sixth-graders around. The biggest issue lately has been phones falling out of pockets but we always find them once the lights go back on.) It is always worth the effort, and the rewards extend far beyond the two-and-a-half hours the program runs. It is something that our teens keep talking about for weeks and months and years after they experience it.
I stumbled upon the term ‘froth‘ while doing some background research for a few upcoming presentations on our Escape Room method – it is the excited chatter that happens after a group experiences something together – a game, an event, an amusement park ride, etc. – that instant rehashing and story formation and insider myth-making. It’s a terrible (and squirmy, for me at least) word but, somehow, it fits.
Mystery Night is very frothy. (Eww.) The teens who play recognize the value of this program, and they remember it. And it truly is something they can only get from the library. I think we all should be vigilant about chasing the froth (eww), capturing it and even harnessing it where, and when we can. It’s not the same as feedback. It’s not quantifiable. It’s a feeling. It’s how I know I’ve done a good job and provided a meaningful experience for my audience.
I love finding ways to challenge the public perception of libraries. I love having the opportunity to emphasize the fun of it all (while keeping that educational content in there, even if it’s Mary Poppins-ed over with a heavy dose of entertainment.) One of my favorite things to hear at work is ‘I didn’t know you did that!’ from anyone, but especially from young people: It’s not just a statement: It’s a door that has opened to reveal all sorts of opportunities.
Our teen audience treasures this program. Parents love it too: They are often a bit jealous that they don’t get to have a Mystery night of their own (Someday we’ll have a grown-up version.)
I mean, who wouldn’t want to run around and scream through the library in the dark?
Wow. This is amazing and has a lot of implications for what we are trying to do with teens in our libraries.
I have just completed an ambitious re-cataloging project in Teen Non-Fiction. I’m so happy that it’s done, and grateful that so much of the ‘decision-ing’ was shared with/completed by Marissa, our former Teen staffer, before she left for her new, full-time youth services job down the road… (sniff)
I’ve been given the responsibility of leading our system-wide, cross-departmental Collections team as a part of our current strategic plan process, so the way we organize our stuff has been on my mind quite a bit lately, particularly in terms of improving ease of use for our patrons of all ages, interests and backgrounds. Inspired by the many libraries that are moving away from Dewey in varying degrees and towards something closer to what we did in the bookstore, I’ve been mulling over our options, focusing first on my own areas of responsibility (which includes not only our teen collections, but adult science fiction, fantasy and graphic novels.) After all, if I am going to recommend changes to the way we’ve always done things across the board for the whole library, I better put my (re-labeling) money where my (re–cataloging) mouth is. I decided to run an experiment on this notion of (vaguely) activity-based collections, starting with teen non-fiction.
(Actually, all this stuff began with a different idea entirely: an attempt at devising a ‘tonal’ method of cataloging teen fiction, based on the feeling a book gives you as opposed to genre…it’s nowhere-near sorted out in my head right now but with so many teen titles blurring, if not obliterating, genre distinctions, I feel like there’s…something to this wild idea. If anyone out there wants to help me figure out a cohesive and efficient way to make this happen, I’m ready to listen!)
Anyway, we are taking all of our teen non-fiction and re-cataloging it into one of four primary, action-based categories: Learn, Discover, Make, and Lives (yeah, not so much an ‘action,’ but it’s an experiment.) Each item retains its Dewey number and when it all finally comes together, each book will have (yes, another new) label that is color-coded for its category and will be shelved in order, within its new category. And there will be bright colorful signage that my summer volunteers have been working on. (They hate Mod Podge now…and so do I.)
I hope it will help our patrons find what they are looking for, not just in terms of subject matter, but by the type of book in regard to the reading experience, be it general, topical information (LEARN), deeper-dives and ‘good reading’ narrative non-fiction (DISCOVER), instructional books for hands-on learning (MAKE) and the ever-popular, assignment-friendly biographies and memoirs (LIVES.) In terms of the fuzzy line between what is LEARN and what is DISCOVER, content is the most important factor, but when it’s close, we are considering the format and letting that be our guide.
I hope this creates a section that promotes browsing with less anxiety for our teens and their adults. Approaching a shelf of books can be daunting, even to those well-versed in Dewey. I want to make my teen collections (and all collections) as intimidation-free as possible.
I LOVE this stuff. I love having my hands in the stacks and finding stray bits of label tape in my hair. I do have moments of doubt about whether or not this stuff (and the similar plans I am working on for adult collections for the entire library system) is a bit of ‘shuffling for the sake of shuffling,’ but this project is throwing me back in time to my beloved bookstore days. We did this sort of thing all the time, in pursuit of improving customer experience and driving those sales numbers. It was called ‘Category Management,’ or ‘Cat.Man.,’ and it was always a lot of fun to work on, even if it didn’t produce the monetary results corporate was looking for. Watching our ‘sections’ shift and grow as I moved from one store (that renovated while I was a supervisor) to another, new one (that I helped lay out, hire for and open) over the five years I worked there was fascinating to me.
Cat.Man. was handed down from on-high, as the people in Ann Arbor who made the decisions (I wonder how many of them had M.L.I.S. degrees…) about what went where re-jiggered sections, continuously and endlessly it seemed, at the time. Taking board books out-of-order by author in favor of sections by concept (ABCs, 123s, Animals, etc.), rearranging computer books so they’d be organized by programming language, or getting aggressively detailed about sub-genres of rock music…A big package would arrive by mail with a long list of titles and a deadline, so it was up to those of us in the stores who were in charge of merchandising to fire up the label machines, measure our shelf footage and figure out a way to get it done. Usually this involved overnight shifts and too much coffee (and some of those weird, stuffed-pretzel snacks we sold for a time in the cafe.)
The Cat.Man. experience, for me, was about the fallacy of ‘the right way,’ at least in terms of how to organize stuff. Our store designers kept changing their mind about what should go where, hoping to make things faster, simpler and more sensible to our customers. They walked in with money, and if they walked out with it still in their pocket, something was not working properly. Paying for overnights (and any inadvertent damage caffeine-addled young adults might do to the shelving units) was worth it, if the final result improved ease of use (and drives sales…or circulation numbers these days.) And if one method doesn’t work, you can always try another. (Especially if you don’t mind re-labeling stuff!) Sometimes ‘ the right way’ is just for right now, not forever.
Back then, the work wasn’t intellectually hard to do – the ‘decision-ing’ was out of our hands. While working on this current library project feels a bit like Cat.Man. reborn, this time we are the ones making the call as to what goes where. It feels much more serious, perhaps because I am working with a collection I have built myself over the past 10 years (and I’ve always been extremely sentimental about weeding.) I am doing my best to let the language our patrons use when they ask us for stuff be my guide, in this, as well as our ongoing/upcoming Adult Non-Fiction ‘capsule collection’ project and Fantasy project, which will include a new section where we put all the Star Wars stuff – regardless of format (fiction vs. non-fiction; book vs. video, maybe even despite age level…maybe…) together in one spot. We hope it will make things easier for everyone, but only time will tell.
Here it is:
I’m going to do some color-coded shelf-taping too, just lining the edges of the shelves to match the labels and signs.
There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t talk about what a wonder the Dewey Decimal system is, to teens, kids and even adults. The fact that it always seems revelatory to them, however, doesn’t bode well for it’s continued use. While lots of libraries are moving in this direction and away from ‘tradition,’ its still a radical idea for some of our users (and staff.) It’s a (not-so) grand experiment.
Next up…emoji-based cataloging! I’m serious! I won’t call it that, of course. Tonal Cataloging for YA Fiction. Yeah. I just need to figure…it…out… </Madsface>
When your teen community asks for something, you should do all in your power to provide it. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that (the same holds true for pretty much any of us, anywhere, engaged in public service.) We have a fantastic Fandoms group that, up until this point, suspended for summer each year. For the first time, the teens who attend that weekly program asked for it to continue over the long, hot, sweaty break. (Yeah…I’m not a summer person.)
I’d love nothing more to carry on with our weekly ‘pop culture book club’ year-round, but it’s not so easy to find new ways to approach fandom-ry each and every week (as fast as our culture moves, it’s not that fast, especially when you are limited to a PG-13 and under version of it.) As I’ve said before, it can sort of drain your will to live. I wanted to find a way to honor their enthusiasm, though, so I proposed that, instead of our usual meetings with its familiar agenda (gather, decompress, catch up, share news, dive into the days topic/viewing) we might do a film series instead. The teens were ALL about it – Perfect! they declared. I gave them two options: A summer of documentaries or a summer of classic films. I presented the choice neutrally, hoping they’d opt for the latter…Without any prompting from me (I swear!) they chose classics, much to my delight. My brain started turning thoughtwheels instantly: A movie for each decade that reflected contemporary fandom! If I selected the films carefully it would be fun and insightful and in keeping with the spirit of the program these teens love!
Now, having done this job in this place for a while, I reminded them that, in fact, most of them would likely be absent for the bulk of the summer – jobs, assignments, camp, travel, the challenges of geography and transportation in regards to their homes vs. the library…I practically never see most of these teens at the library once school is out. Ah, no! they insisted. They asked for this and I was giving it to them! They would totally, definitely, 100% turn up for this!
They didn’t. (You saw that coming, of course.)
Of the 30 or so teens who come each and every week to our Friday Fandoms United program, maybe 4 turned up to Fandom Film Foundations with any sort of regularity. A few other film-loving teens turned up from time to time, but in terms of audience size, this program was not what you’d call a success, at least not in relation to our own high standards (developed over a decade, with the benefit of multiple Teen staffers running things and with libraries in very close proximity to schools…any success we have is tied up with these privilege factors.)
However, in terms of the quality of experience…this program was a home run! We know because we’ve heard raves from the teens who attended (and I’m always sensitive to cues that they might only be saying nice things because they recognize my own personal enthusiasm and don’t want to disappoint me…this wasn’t that), kudos from parents, and intriguingly, the post-program circulation of our selected films and the speed at which we are running out of our Classic Films by Decade bookmarks and a few requests from parents and other adults for a ‘guide’ so they can replicate the ‘class’ at home, at their own speed. (I’m totally going to do that now that our other summer programs are winding down.)
The What & How:
Will we do this again? Maybe…?
Things to improve on/adjust if there is a ‘next time’:
Do I wish I had just said no when our Fandoms-ers asked for a 9-weeks-long film series over the summer, having guessed correctly that most of them, sincerely wishing for more Fandoms while simultaneously agreeing that our traditional meeting structure was too much to continue over the summer, wouldn’t be there in the end? I could have said no, and it wouldn’t have been a big deal…
Nah. You have to give them what they ask for, after all. Asking for something is not easy (usually) and you have to honor their bravery and celebrate that fact that they are comfortable enough with you and their place in the library to do so. You also have to try to not get too down on yourself if the teens don’t (or can’t) turn up. It’s not exactly failure (there is a difference between failure and disappointment.) It’s another learning opportunity and a chance to improve.
I’ll still tease them about it when Fandoms starts up again in a few weeks, though…
UPDATE: For now, I’ve made a guide/syllabus for the program geared to families, converting my speaking notes into questions to consider, and gathering the suggested films from each decade’s bookmark to create a display for the front of the library, just in time for the Labor Day weekend:
From the introduction of The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights: From the Winchester Manuscripts and Other Sources, published in 1976.
It’s been quite a week in Libraryland controversy…but then again, when isn’t it?
Some of the ideas expressed in reaction to the above-linked Book Riot piece have been swirling around in my mind for years now, especially recently as my library embarked on a new strategic plan about a year ago. One of the topics that keeps coming up as library managers discuss it is the idea of workload and who is responsible for what, exactly, particularly in the breakdown of MLIS vs. non-MLIS library staff. I don’t particularly care to weigh in on that here, but since some of the brouhaha this morning has centered around an article about the responsibility of librarians to be widely-read (or not), I find myself gravitating to subsequent discussions and comments on positive and proactive suggestions to address the balance of hobby-reading and ‘for-work’-reading.
Librarianship is one of those professions where everything in your life can be harnessed to make you better at your job. My passion for pop culture has enhanced our thriving teen Fandom group (we are just about to begin our FOURTH YEAR of weekly sessions!) I’ve long been a passionate cross-genre reader. And coming from a big family, I’ve always had young people around me (as well as plenty of what we might call ‘new adults’ when I was a tween/teen myself…but with 100 cousins that’s inevitable.) All these things, among countless others, assist in my day-to-day work.
This is a great thing. When you love what you do, you can’t help but think about it, a lot, all of the time. Great ideas don’t always arrive from 9-5 on Monday through Friday (or 12-7, as the case may be.) Sometimes we bring things home so we can make our work stuff meet our own high standards. We get used to being open, all of the time, to that next incandescent moment of perfect inspiration. But these ‘above and beyond’ activities can blur the lines between your professional life and your private time outside of work to a damaging degree. There is a danger – of a draining of enthusiasm and burnout, of unreasonable expectations, even of a wanton exploitation of your willingness to be ‘on’ all the time.
How much do my personal reading choices improve my job performance? Immensely!
I love reading. I take great pride in my readers advisory for teens and adults, skills I have been honing since I got out of college (hey ya, Borders Books and Music!). I won’t lie – I die a little inside when I see librarians respond to requests for recommendations by saying ‘Well, let’s go to Novelist…” (Novelist is great…but there is nothing like the delight in someones eyes when you give personalized recommendations and those algorithms just can’t compare.)
I realize that’s not fair. Does every librarian have to be a reader? I don’t think so, not even a little bit. (I do think that Reference and Readers Advisory are often conflated in a way that they shouldn’t be.) (I also think libraries should be going all-in on ‘advisory’ in the same way many libraries are in the realm of Maker/Tech so we can take advantage of the giant cultural vacuum created by the shuttering of big-box bookstores…but I can’t start on that now…)
Now, how much of my personal reading should be mandated by the needs of my job? Uhh…
It’s a tricky question to answer. In theory, the answer is a big ‘none-zo!’ But the reality of working with an economically, socially and academically diverse patronage of teens, and parents, as well as with adults, means that if I want to serve my community well, I need to have a broad knowledge of what they want and need to read (and watch, and listen to, too.) There is no way to accomplish this kind of professional development, which is parasitically – in a good way! – intertwined with my own love of reading as a hobby, on work time. I hate to see this question reduced to an online screaming match (Truly. Dial it back a bit…maybe it’s not about you personally…and it is really a time for you to listen for a minute) when there are some positive ways to address some of these issues.
Is there a way to improve our book knowledge (or title recognition, as we called it back in the bookstore) on work time in a way that improves our services (including the way we develop our collections) and is not a burden on our already overwhelming workloads, other staff or schedulers? In pondering these questions a few years ago, I started thinking about something I had heard during a library conference – that a large system somewhere in the middle of the country (I’m so disappointed that I can’t recall where, exactly) with a big collections department held a monthly book study circle, where staff would gather and discuss a genre. From what I gathered, it is not an uncommon thing in the massive county systems that don’t really exist in my neck of the woods. It was a fantastic in-house professional development opportunity and one that I hoped to replicate at our little two-library system.
It took some convincing, but after rallying some allies in other departments, all of whom were already fantastic readers and RA specialists, who also wanted a way to improve and sharpen their skills, we were able to set into motion something that has become one of my favorite work-things: Our very own voluntary Genre Study Circle for any full or part-time staff who are interested in learning more about the wide range of literature we house in the library.
We meet once a month on Friday morning – a specifically chosen, out-of-the-way time that doesn’t interfere with programs, alternating between branches as best as we can. We keep it very strictly to one hour, or at least we try very hard to. Each session focuses on a genre or style as selected when we set our program twice a year, and is led by a different staff member who will present a bit before we start booktalking about the history, current status and popularity of said category. We’ve covered the usual suspects, genre-wise, and now that we are entering our third year, we’re reaching out even further: Fan Fiction! Animal Stories! Celebrity Biography! It is a flat group – no one person is in charge. We take turns leading: alerting staff of each meeting, sending along some suggested titles for those with no idea where to start, taking notes at the session that we make available to staff who cannot attend and sometimes providing themed treats (because…library!)
It’s a wonderful way for staff who might not normally venture outside of their reading lanes to get a taste of something different, and learn directly from their colleagues about more titles in that category. (Do we wish more people would/could attend? Sure…but our group does grow a bit each year, and most people who turn up once keep coming when they can.) It’s a little bit of a crash course and a lot of fun. It’s a positive way to encourage staff, even those who cannot attend, to widen their horizons, at their own pace, by committing to one book a month that is (perhaps, maybe) outside of their (preferred or ‘comfort’) zone.
Almost all of us have been ‘converted’ and have fallen in love with a genre or format we might have never considered. Best of all…we’ve started taking field trips! I feel comfortable saying that we are all better at our jobs because of it. We’ll even be trying something new in our next session that will likely become our summer tradition: An author study, this time on Stephen King. As perhaps the most squeamish person on the East Coast, this will take me very far out of my comfort zone. I’m so excited to begin.
Another Escape Room down (more on that later, surely…) and with its conclusion comes something more significant, in terms of our library service for teens: The departure of Marissa, our part-time librarian trainee (or whatever she decided her job title was here...) off to begin her first full-time, professional library gig.
Her last week was bizarre (wonderfully so) and intense, because she was the person who designed and executed this iteration of our Escape Room program (Escape from Malfoy Manor, because of reasons, using the manual I wrote so hey, at least we know it works!) so it hasn’t really sunk in yet. Marissa started working with me at age 16 as a page, after a lifetime of being a library kid, from story time to Mystery Night. When she told me she was going to library school directly after college and that she wanted to be a Teen Librarian, I was…surprised. It’s something I hear from teens from time to time, but thus far, no one has actually gone and done ‘the thing.’
I won’t say too much more, other than mentoring her has been the absolute best thing I’ve ever done as a librarian. (Cue: Weeping with joy...) She’s a fabulous human being with excellent taste in music, even if she made me cry in front of our colleagues at her farewell snack-break, making some people think that I was sad to see her go, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m so very, very happy that she has found her calling and that she found it so fast and early. Best of all, she’ll be right down the road at a fantastic library system so I’ll get to keep an eye out and watch her continue to do incredible things (and guilt-trip her into coming back every once in a while to help with big events…!)
I’ve always been lucky when it comes to the people I work with, in general but more specifically in the part-time staff who I have mentored, collaborated with and managed over this past decade. (I‘m fully aware of and grateful for our privilege in even having more than one staffer to work with teens. Like I said: Lucky.) Our department is small but there are a lot of expectations placed on us in terms of our reputation for innovation, the demand for more and more program additions each year, the explosion in teen literature and the correspondent need for sharp and authentic readers advisory…If you ask anyone who has to manage a schedule, you will hear all about the need to balance competency and dependability. It’s an equation – you want the most skilled and talented employees to work for and with you, but it doesn’t matter how stellar someone is if they don’t turn up, or leave you hanging, or just disappear (years of book store management has certainly affected my perspective on this.) It’s not easy to find people who can handle the extremes of teen services, let alone those who want to work with teens, let alone those who are available during those critical after school hours, let alone those who both excel and can be relied upon, day in and day out.
And when that person turns up…anything becomes possible.
The most fortuitous thing that has ever happened in my career was when our Branch Teen Librarian, Jen, accepted her job. (Not pictured, as per her request) I didn’t quite know it at the time, but she would become the bedrock of not only an exceptional after-school teen center service, but of our entire department as well. I’ll never forget the first time I met her, very early into my career, when she was doing one of those grad school ‘interview a librarian and write a paper’ things. Her young son was antsy, so she was playing videos for him while she asked me about library science stuff (most of which I may or may not have made up.) (There is a separate post in here somewhere about the trauma of watching that little boy grow up and become taller than you and making you keenly feel your age, but…maybe not.) Her no-nonsense practicality was so impressive (and something I have to work very hard on projecting, personally.) I don’t remember anyone I meet only once but I remembered Jen when she came in to interview for the Branch Librarian position a few months later (and I remember what she was wearing…’lawyer clothes,’ – fitting, as it was her previous career after all…it just struck me as funny at the time, with my Teen library uniform of jeans and t-shirts, and knowing her now, it still kind of does!)
It would take me weeks to talk about everything I’ve learned from her over the years, and how much I admire her (especially her organizational skills, her ability to manage the rigors of her job and the demands of raising two kids, and the incredible speed at which she gets all sorts of stuff done. I can’t touch any of it. She says it’s because I’m pulled away from Teen Services by my other managerial duties so much. I say it’s because she’s simply superhuman.) We’ve built this thing together and are a team in every sense of the word. My job is to support her as she executes her brilliance and to work as hard for her as she does for our department and our library. That she is still willing to work with me after all this time is something I consider a true measure of personal success.
I’m loud and opinionated and unreserved, a giant open mouth with wild ideas. Jen is subtle, measured and level-headed, with a talent for finding the most sensible way to transform many of those wild ideas into realities. We are (likely because of these differences) a talented team of Teen librarians. Her demeanor couldn’t be more different from mine and there is the object lesson: doing this job well isn’t about personality, but temperament. It’s about authenticity. Most of all, it’s about remembering. To paraphrase Dave Eggers, either you can see through the eyes of youth, or you can’t. You either remember what it was like to be a teenager or you don’t. It’s not something you can fake, or a show you can put on, or something you can turn on and off at will. In my opinion, that is the only true prerequisite for this job.
Everyone who has ever worked with me, from these two outstanding pros to our wonderful teen pages over the years, has been able to operate from this place of remembering. I’ll miss working with Marissa each week but I’m excited to see what she’ll do in her new role. I’d be bereft without Jen – a quaking, blubbering mess incapable of coherent thought. I get teased for ‘Knope-ing’ my coworkers and especially my staff, but I don’t care. They are, all of them, “beautiful, talented, brilliant, powerful musk-ox(en). Thank you, ox(en).”
I’m so damned lucky.
It’s that time of year! As youth services librarians put the final touches on their summer plans – events, activities, decor, classroom visits, reading games (or otherwise) – some of us are lucky enough to deal with another rush – of teens needing all the volunteer hours…right…now! No joke: I get several emails each day, starting in mid-May, from teens looking to earn service hours (2, 4, 6, 20!) before school lets out in mid-June. The library offers several options for volunteering, but no other area matches the teen department in terms of volume and tight turn-around requests for hours.
I mean it when I say ‘lucky.’ I won’t deny it – working with volunteers can be challenging. They run the gamut from ‘I want to be here’ to ‘I have to be here’ to ‘I really have to be somewhere or else I’ll be in big trouble so this will do.’ When I need help or coverage for things, my staff and colleagues are always ready to jump in, but our volunteer days are always the very last thing they opt for. They hate it and I get it. It’s not an easy thing, working with young people. Some adults don’t have an aptitude for it (not judging – they do their adult-y stuff very well.) Combine that sensibility with an activity where you are giving teens something they need and have literally asked (or pleaded) for, but aren’t really too happy or enthusiastic about doing, and you have a situation that is challenging for everyone involved.
The way we work with teen volunteers is a bit different from you might expect – completely drop-in and at-will. We offer a regularly scheduled volunteer opportunity each month (Service Saturday, the first Saturday of every school-year month, and its cousin, Service Wednesday in the summer) but there is no registration and no limit to how many teens can attend in the set time frame. I’ve been told that this is bonkers: How can you plan? What if you run out of work? How do you make it meaningful for everyone involved?
How and what indeed…I’m going to take that backwards.
‘Meaningful:’ It’s important for teens to feel valued. I work in an affluent area (with non-affluent neighborhoods including my own residential pocket, surrounded by less affluent towns with residents who use our services heavily) where teens are often seen, sometimes heard, but not always valued. There is a significant difference between these three things. General teen advocacy is one of the most important parts of my job. Teens have tremendous value and deserve to be furnished with meaningful opportunities to make a difference in their communities.
But…not during our drop-in service hours. We set this in place because we were getting so many (so, so many) requests for volunteering and it was proving to be onerous to schedule times that worked for ‘the library’ (or, the staff who didn’t mind spending time teaching teens how to do stuff even though they’d likely never become ‘permanent’ volunteers) and the busy, primarily high-school-aged teens who needed hours. A drop-in program meant that teens didn’t have to plan in advance – they can stay for as long as they’d like. They can turn up at any point in the day. They can skip a session. For over-scheduled teens, swamped with school, jobs, clubs, future planning – figuring out how to get hours done can be a source of stress. By moving to a drop-in system we did our best to minimize that for them. Yes – it meant more stress for us, but we are grown-ups and we can take it.
Once we settled on this course of action, we had to let go of the idea of volunteering as an enrichment activity. I wish it were otherwise. I am always looking for ways to extend what we do for volunteers into something with more intrinsic value, but the more we carried on with this plan of action, the more we realized that it was really okay – the teens are looking for and need hours. Skill-building is incredibly important. Opportunities to take ownership and feel a sense of responsibility are vital for teen development. (Hey ya, 40 Developmental Assets, I see you over there, judging me…we care about you and use you to evaluate most all of our services and programs!…Just not this one…okay? Please don’t be angry.) Sometimes, though, you have to accept that the teens you are working with, in that moment, aren’t interested in what you are selling, development-wise. They want hours. They want someone to check off a box or sign a form or scrawl a signature and jot a phone number on a sheet promising (threatening?) to check up on whether or not these hours were actually completed. (Never, not once, has anyone called us to verify hours, even those that were court-mandated.) We have heard our teen community, and while we know what teens ‘need,’ sometimes you have to give them what they are actually asking for.
Once we let go of (or reluctantly set aside) of the idea of meaningfulness, it became easy to plan for volunteers without knowing how many would turn up. We’ve developed a list of stuff to do throughout the building and only on our heaviest days (when we get past 25+ volunteers) do we ever come close to running out of stuff for them to do. It’s not glorious – shelving and shelf-reading and the dreaded rounds of dusting and even worse, cart cleaning. We have to keep an eye out for teens so disinterested that they move past the point of caring about accuracy (no, we don’t mind if they approach their tasks in a fashion that would make a sloth look industrious, but we do run shelf-tests and have had our semi-nuclear moments when we spot egregious errors, but they are exceedingly rare. Most volunteers get the job done right.) Our program has blossomed – like anything else, it has taken years of consistent and diligent adherence to our schedule, but there has been exponential growth in the number of teens we serve.
The word is out, and aren’t we lucky. Teens know this is a place that will help them with what they need outside of just the general providing of stuff. That’s a big deal.
They also know that if they find themselves in a ‘volunteer emergency,’ my favorite descriptor used during the May-June rush, we will do whatever we can to get them those precious hours. We say yes, whenever we can. Then, more teens ask. We keep saying yes. On and on it goes, and here I am today, with three volunteers who turned up because I said yes to one of them. They are shelving in our new book area. Maybe they’ll continue to volunteer in their spare time, but it’s more likely they won’t. After all, they are so busy all the time. They will, however, leave with a good feeling about the library. That has always been our most central goal – it may not be lofty, but it’s meaningful.
UPDATE: We just crossed the 500-hour mark with our drop-in and appointment volunteers for this fiscal year!