I hope to get back to writing soon. Right now I’m busy learning a new job, in a new(-ish) place, with new (fantastic!) people, adjusting to a new schedule due to a (temporarily) significantly longer commute, thereby losing treasured TV and movie and reading (and less-than-treasured-exercise) time, and pretty much always feeling a bit like this:
As the artist, Peter H. Reynolds notes, it’s an image of “a young (in my case, young-ish?) person hovering–looking slightly perplexed–and possibly delighted at the position they’re in.”
Which is exactly right: Diving into a whole new aspect of librarianship is perplexing and delightful, in equal measure. I have a feeling those proportions will change soon, and quickly.
I think I really like where this is all heading.
Of course that’s easy to say when there are wings attached to your pants.
Enjoy these early summer days. I’ll talk to you soon.
‘What’s next?’ is a question. When I started this blog it was primarily for the housing of my Escape Room manual (which was created for a colleague who wanted to try her hand at creating one from scratch. Over 1500 views and clicks from around the world later…) I thought I might take the opportunity to reflect on a decade of Teen librarianship and what I’d learned from successes (and failures) as we built a service from scratch. I decided to subtitle it ‘Reflections on 10+ years of Teen Librarianship and discovering what’s next…‘
‘What’s next’ is a question, but it’s also, in this moment, an answer. What’s next for me is something I hadn’t anticipated just over a year ago when I embarked on this project.
I will be leaving my current position as Head of Teen Services to move into a new area (for me) of librarianship, in a new (sort of) location, as the Outreach Services Specialist for a county library system. (The ‘sort of’ is because I’m a native Long Islander, so in a way I’m going home, even though I’m a Suffolk girl. Not Jersey, Sue B.)
I’m excited and nervous, which is (I hope) the exact right way to feel as I embark on something new. I can’t quite believe this is happening and I’m still in a state of bewildered gratitude for having even been considered. I have a lot to learn, but I really, really like being a student, and more than anything, I’m thrilled to apply the skills I’ve learned as a teen librarian, manager, and teacher to a wider scope of library users (and not-yet-users) who can benefit from our services in meaningful (and even life-altering) ways. I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to make a difference as my focus shifts to the support and strengthening of libraries themselves.
My feelings about moving away from full time teen service work are very complex (rueful, maybe?) Though I’ve had moments of frustration and exhaustion, I’ve never truly felt burnt-out (something that happens to the best of us, which others have described more eloquently than I could ever hope to.) I’m proud of the communities I’ve helped foster through programs like Fandoms and Service Saturday, and One Book One Town, as well as initiatives like our staff Genre Circle and library Collections Team, and the work I’ve done with schools and local youth support groups. I find myself thinking about all that I wanted but never got to do, and the things I hope might still get done before (and after) I’m gone. I hope I’ve been able to convince my colleagues and community that teens must always be seen, heard, and valued. I would have been happy doing this work for the rest of my career, and as I’ve been telling my colleagues, it would have taken a truly extraordinary opportunity at an amazing place to pull me away, and that’s exactly what’s happening.
I’m cataloging ‘lasts’ in my mind and getting a little emotional over things I had not anticipated. I’m blithely refusing to think about the changes coming to friendships I’ve developed with people at my library and with colleagues through this great state, as well as with the citizens of this town, where I have lived and worked for 11 and a half years. (Or my neighbors, some of whom have lived in our little apartment house longer than I have.) I’ve been able to share the news with co-workers (and my friends and family, who are thrilled that I’ll be ‘coming home’), but because of some…political considerations (it’s budget season, after all) I haven’t been able to tell most people until now.
I’m not the only person leaving in the next few weeks and months, so it will be a time of extreme transition for our library, but one that brings the potential for new, exciting things for our community. In a season of change, I can’t wait to see how this most incredible group of professionals finds the opportunity inside the challenge (in the past five or six years it has felt like one ‘Donkey Kong Barrel’ after another thrown at us) much as they have always done. I’d be lying if I said there isn’t a part of me that wonders what role I might have played in the impending revival, even if I’m very much at peace with this new direction (and, as someone who rarely feels peaceful, I know this means it’s right.)
I won’t be able to tell our patrons, some of whom I’ve watched grow from tweens to adults, for another few days. (It seems like I’m running into a lot of teens that I haven’t seen around in a while. This happens all the time, of course, but it feels like they are all turning up at the same time just to make me misty-eyed.) While I hate that there won’t be a lot of time between sharing the news and my departure, I’m glad to have a bit of space to consider the best way not only to tell them, but to let them know that I hope to maintain my connection to them. The internet really is a miracle.
As the shock and surprise wears off and this becomes ‘really real,’ in the next few weeks I’ll be scurrying around, trying to make this transition as smooth as possible for my staff (in particular, the amazing Jen, with whom I’ve built this service over the past 10 years) who will be assuming (some of) my responsibilities. I’ll be packing and cleaning an office and an apartment, and hopefully doing one last weed of my adult collections (Fantasy, I’m coming for you!) I’m going to try and get more manuals together for this blog and start piecing together planned workshops for the state library. I’ll present at a conference (Escape Rooms with the marvelous Marissa!) I’ll run a few more programs. I’ll start moving (very, VERY temporarily to my family home as I look for an apartment or condo or co-op or…maybe a houseboat! Not really, but it’s fun to think about.) I’ll write out plans for the work I’m leaving behind and about a bajillion cards for these people who have made me the librarian (and person) I am today. I’ll go to a dozen lunches, dinners and parties. I’ll make sincere plans to visit, and be visited in return (because I’m not going far.) I’ll turn in my keys and parking permit and (try and fail to) sneak out a side door.
So here we go: a slow reboot of everything in my life. No one can know the future, but I intend to leap into this new opportunity with clear eyes and an inquisitive spirit. I hope you’ll stick around and take this journey with me. Let’s go!
I crossed a big item off my bucket list last month – I traveled solo (sort of) to Scotland. It’s a country that has loomed large in my imagination since I was a little kid (having read Margaret George’s book Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles at far too young an age) and it more than lived up to my expectations. I love travel and exploring new places, and this was the first time I truly felt that I could just drop everything and never, ever leave a new place.
I haven’t, and (for the foreseeable future) I won’t (althoughthere are some big changes coming soon…watch this space) but the memories made during this trip will live in my heart for a long time. I realize that this reverse-wanderlust has a lot to do with the ‘vacation’ aspect of all this – it’s easy to want to live somewhere when your experience consists of hotels, sightseeing and someone cooking your meals (and washing your dishes), and in my case this was enhanced by the fact that I used a fantastic tour company, so most all of the stressful elements of going to a new place were handled.
Like any adventure, the best part of my trip was meeting fantastic people. I didn’t know anyone in my group when I arrived in Glasgow, but a week later, flying out of Edinburgh, I had connected with and made new friends that I wound up spending a significant amount of time with (which is sort of a big deal, as I really enjoy my ‘wandering city streets and skulking in foreign alleys-alone time’ quite a bit.)
Since I’ve returned, I’ve been thinking a bit about how it is that our little crew (or clan, because Scotland), with a 15-year age-span, all engaged in wildly different work, and hailing from different corners of the country, managed to forge such a meaningful connection. It is, as one of our fellow tour-mates noted, because we spoke the same (semi-coded) language: References.
The first time I noticed it was at a castle (we were always at some incredible castle, because Scotland) when I heard, from somewhere in the pile of people, ‘Don’t Blink.’ My head shot up and I started scanning for the person who dropped the Doctor Who reference. We made eye contact and shared a smile. It was on.
As the trip proceeded we began speaking in pop culture, connecting over shared (and sometimes surprising) interests in a way that seemed like we had developed our own language of strange phrases and private jokes. Giggling, singing songs from ‘The Nightman Cometh.’ Quoting ‘Hannibal.’ (I will find my Fannibals anywhere!) Bridging the silence with gentle teasing about our own obscure favorites and clapping with joy finding out that someone else had heard of or loved something we treasure.
It might seem like a superficial way to connect, but this introduction via pop culture lead to expansive conversations (and a sense of goodwill when opinions diverged) over the course of long bus transfers, quiet moments in hotel lobbies and amazing meals in pubs all over the country (Haggis: Delicious!) It was intensely familiar: this is how I talk with my oldest friends and family members near(ish) to my age. It was anything but shallow. These new relationships were quick, comfortable, and thanks to the miracle of the Internet, will likely last for a long while.
I think we’ve all had those moments of connection over pop culture ‘ephemera’ at work. One of the most wonderful things about working with teens is getting to witness that delighted moment of recognition when you compliment a shirt or a pin, or can drop in on a conversation about OTPs, or ask them for recommendations on books, shows, movies, or bands to enjoy (I would never have fallen in love with Bob’s Burgers or Steven Universe if it weren’t for my Fandoms group insisting that I get over my ambivalence towards animation.) I have these kinds of interactions with adults, too, but they are more often than not muted and cautious. (Of course, as generations shift and what used to be marginalized as ‘nerd culture’ becomes more and more profitable, universal, and centralized, this is changing.) What do we have to lose when we share our enthusiasm, demonstrate our expertise in the things we love, or allow others to do the same?
It’s important, and often vital, to keep a ‘professional’ distance from patrons in a public library, but professional doesn’t have to mean impersonal. Recognizing and responding to our users in this way can lead to opportunities with lasting value for everyone involved. I’m thrilled to see more and more libraries turning to pop culture as another avenue to expand their reach into their communities and demonstrate that our ‘institutions’ truly see, appreciate, and value everyone.
Many teens in our weekly Fandoms group came to their first meeting knowing they’d be walking into a room full of strangers (a major anxiety trigger no matter your age or experience level) having only met me, the librarian who geeked out for a minute over their Sherlock laptop sticker or Fourth Doctor-inspired scarf. As each new person introduces themselves to the group, they name a few of their beloved fandoms. As they do, without fail, others in the group will whoop, clap, or shout a catchphrase, and the newbie will smile, or wave, or respond with a reference in kind. You can see their tension ease. They have found a place.
Over time, I’ll see these teens turn up at other classes and events, volunteer for different departments, or use our spaces to gather, study, or just hang out. Many of them will become library-users for life, and it all started with a simple moment of reference and response. They know that the library is theirs, and that someone who works there speaks their language, or at least is willing to learn it.
I am always saying how lucky I am (because it’s true!): I have a job that I love in a profession I believe in and I know that the work I do each day makes a difference. The staff of my library is outstanding – truly the best that I have ever worked with or seen. Unlike some teen librarians I talk to, my colleagues seem to like working with teens (even outside my constant harping about it.) So I was surprised when a someone was a bit…snarky about my excitement over the impending Youth Media Awards. (As an irrepressible ‘list and awards’ fan, the announcement each year at ALA Midwinter ranks just under the Oscars for me.) I’m choosing to take that moment of side-eye as having more to do with my (often excessive) enthusiasm than that other thing. It was a fleeting moment, certain to be instantly forgotten. But I’m not sure, and it’s still (slightly) bothering me a few days later.
It might be that other thing: That it’s easy and comfortable for adults to scoff at young people and their stuff and their seemingly temporary concerns and ‘dramas.’
I’ve known many extraordinary teens in the time I’ve been a librarian. Some that I am working with now really stand out: the members of the LGBTQIA+ support group that uses one of our libraries as their meeting space. I try to sit in with them as often as I can and always make sure to have their information on hand for anyone interested or in need. It may be self-serving, but these teens are the ones I seek out when things in the wider world get tough because they are incredibly kind, brave and just plain fun to be around.
I made sure to arrange my overloaded schedule to be with them on Friday. The tenor of the group was much as it ever is – bright, cheerful, laughing. A room of teens from across the county gathering, catching up after being apart for a week or longer, celebrating the small victories of their day. As we got into the session, though, things darkened as they began to share thoughts on the inauguration and fears about what reactionary politics could mean for the gains in equality we’ve seen up to this point. Some were quiet, some angry, some were making mordant jokes, but all of them expressed fear and a growing sense of helplessness.
Whatever your politics might be, this is no time to disregard the fears of our teens. When it was my turn to contribute, I tried to focus their energy towards action, challenging them to think about how they would respond to the things that are making them uncomfortable and unsure. When a trans teen said that they felt useless, I responded honestly. Of course you do, I said, ‘you all have it harder than adults.’
They were thunderstruck. Usually this group is so energetic they overlap questions and answers with a rapidity that would impress the most caffeinated professional pundits. After a few beats of silence, the teen whispered “Oh. Please say that again.” And so I did.
I told them how I see it: Teens have little control over so many factors of their lives: They don’t have economic power (even in this affluent corner of the world.) They have to abide by the rules of their guardians, and while some have compassionate support systems, more endure home-lives that range from willfully ignorant about their needs, to hostile, to dangerous or even non-existent. Their access to transportation, medical care, education and (often) information is strictly controlled. Few of them are truly seen, or heard, or taken seriously by anyone in their lives except each other. In so many ways, they must rely on others to act for them.
Another beat of silence, and this time, with a sly smile, the teen again whispered. “Say. That. Again.”
When I’m working on other desks, or just living my life out in the community, I am often asked how I can stand working with teens. What most people are really asking is how can I stand these teens these days. This is a lazy, self-indulgent question that, to me, indicates an abdication of the responsibility we have as ‘grown-ups’ and representatives of older (but rarely wiser) generations to help young people learn exactly how to navigate the often-fuzzy ‘rules’ of adulthood.
I (too often) find myself defending the value of service to teens. I worry that it has become a losing game. Those who work with young people must never become complacent about the importance of seeing, hearing and helping young people, or insisting that others treat them an essential part of our communities. To tell a teen to ‘get over it,’ that they are ‘lucky’ to have contemporary problems (as opposed to the ‘historical’ ones of older generations) or, that they’ll understand it all in some future, hazy ‘one day’ does nothing to assuage their fears or feelings of helplessness in the moment. When someone says something like this, they aren’t interested in helping. They either cannot or will not remember that they once experienced those same fears and uncertainties. They are just making themselves feel better.
It might feel true: Maybe it’s likely that teens will look back, with the advantage of age, and realize that their current problems aren’t such a big deal. But in the moment (this moment, especially) the challenges they are facing as individuals, as well as in their communities, country, and planet, seem insurmountable. How can we expect them to ‘get over it’ if we only offer an generic insistence that they will, without providing the specific support they need to gain the skills they need to cope, or without sharing our own stories, revealing our past (and current) vulnerabilities, treating young people with the respect they deserve?
I asked this amazing group what they were going to do to ensure that their place in the world remains visible, accessible, and protected. Though they know that their options to act are limited, they responded: They would band together. They would stand up for what they believe in, where and when they could. They would carve out and hold space for those still afraid or unable to live their lives authentically.
When a co-worker asked me the same question this weekend, I wasn’t able to answer as thoughtfully as the teens did. After a long, silent moment I said: Through my work.
Even in the best of times, I’m an over-thinker (or catastrophist, or self-obsessive, or worrier, or weirdo, depending on your point of view.) The events of this year, specifically this past month, have only added to my list of personal, local, national and global concerns, as they have for almost everyone I know. I haven’t felt like writing or reading. I’ve been working myself to exhaustion in an attempt to quiet my mind (shift the entire adult fiction section to accommodate new genre shelving by moving 30,000 books, by hand, alone? LET’S GO!) but now that quiet, steady haven of a project is done. With a program planning deadline looming (and loosely-formed, disconnected thoughts about how, maybe, we need to slide a bit away from STE/A/M stuff and back towards focused and engaging information literacy work…) I find myself sinking into the helpless hopelessness I’d managed to forestall through repetitive physical labor. I usually find solace in the knowledge that this work, in the library and with teens in particular, makes a difference.
Except what if it doesn’t? As a person plagued with an ever-present, vague uncertainty, the validity of my work and the pride I take in it was one of the only things I never had occasion to doubt. This train of thought is terrifying.
When I tell people what I do, I get, from some people (colleagues, loved ones, strangers), a reaction can only be described as a sort of pity, mixed with revulsion. (Try saying “Ew!” and “Aww!” at the same time. That’s the face.) It makes me smile. I say that I love working with teens because I love to learn. I learn from teens every day.
When I first started our Fandoms United! group in 2013, it was easy to just wing it in terms of content: There was so much to cover, whole universes to unpack, and a lot of history to bestow. But, as I’ve said before, having weekly sessions with no plan will quickly sap your will to live. At a year and a half in, with no organizing principle, we had run out of stuff to do, say and watch. I was reaching, and they knew it. When our third year started, I announced that each month would be themed and that they would decide on the specific content of each week within said theme. It has worked beautifully: It’s easier to plan and the teens like knowing what’s coming, when their favorite topics will be celebrated, and how they can contribute and lead.
Because I cannot resist alliteration, in making that first monthly schedule I sought a ‘D’ theme for the holiday-shortened month of December and decided to try something different: sessions where we could discuss the ideas, topics, and controversies that permeate fandom life: Deep Thoughts December. For the first run, we talked about shipping and remake culture (featuring my low-key and oft-repeated rant about how the Patrick Swayze canon is sacrosanct and that his films should never, ever, EVER be remade. Don’t @ me.) using a broad outline I generated after some research, which was then handed off to a teen, who would lead and guide the conversation. We began each session with a brief reminder that all views were welcome and personal attacks would not be tolerated. I also offered teens who did not wish to sit for an hour-long discussion the option to grab some cookies to-go that no one opted for (over the years I’ve learned that snacks should usually be served in the middle, not the beginning of programs.) The sessions were wild successes of the ‘let’s do this every week’ variety. (An attempt to spin-off Fandoms into a social issues discussion group didn’t fly – but we did try last fall. I’m think the time is right to try again.)
While some may not be articulate, I’ve found that most teens are thoughtful and hungry to voice and share their opinions. Many are not given (enough) outlets to do so as peers, in conversation with adults. I don’t know if that’s ever been untrue. When I get the ‘Ew/Aww face’ from others, or sense an incredulity when I talk about the things I have learned about from teens (including many of my own favorite ‘fandom-y’ things, to say nothing of breathtaking insight on the world at large) over the years, I can’t quite wrap my head around it. Teens are people. For every ‘bad’ one there are a dozen fantastic, intelligent, caring and motivated ones. Just like, you know, grown-ups.
Facilitating spaces where teens can be themselves, exuberantly engaged in and/or with the things they love, and taken seriously at the same time is one of the most valuable things I do for my teen patronage. It is transformative. (There is a thing about the intersection of pop culture, libraries and communities here that I don’t have the energy to cover right now. I’ve done presentations on it and, believe it or not, it starts with me riding a camel. Yes. Definitely not enough energy for that right now.)
Knowing what December is for, our Fandoms group was eager to dive into a new slate of Deep Thoughts. This time I let them select the topics: they came up with minority representation in pop culture, and the collision of canon, ‘fanon’ and speculative theory. They are not messing around (or making it easy to prepare for, not that I mind.) and it’s no surprise. (We started this first session with sincere acknowledgement that very few of us in that room endure systemic racism in our daily lives, and so carry distinct forms of privilege into the conversation)
Teens know what’s going on. They know that they will very soon have to choose in which ways they interact with and impact the world. It’s my job to help them, how and where I can, to be ready and, in their own way, to be brave. It’s not something I take lightly. I’m not as worried about the future as I might be when I remember that these teens will have a hand in shaping it.
If I see that future, of course. It may depend on if I continue to survive the mid-program snack-grab stampede without serious injury. There have been some close calls.
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.
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.
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!
I’ve done a miserable job of keeping up with this blog…I guess I can blame it on a combination of conference presenting (on Fandoms, rocking the Captain Phasma shirt and Hannibal pants),failed conference proposals (on Escape Rooms…womp womp), Summer Reading planning (skipping the athletics theme for a retro riff on our tenth anniversary) and getting busy with my library’s Strategic Plan plans (I’m the lead on our Collections team…spending a lot of time thinking about adult non-fiction, mixed-media collection spaces and other stuff), an ambitious re-organization of the Teen Library and/or summer reading prep. Be nice to your youth services colleagues this time of year, friends.
Part of this time crunch has delayed my plans for sharing our Escape Room manual – something that has been in demand for a few weeks now online. I’ve popped in to the library on this beautiful New England spring day, and as I write this, I’m sitting on the adult reference desk, just to set this monster piece of work free. It’s here!
Librarians share. I’ve come around to the idea that while it seems we operate in our own little silos, we are doing similar stuff and each, reinventing the wheel over and over again. (This is true and untrue.) In my early years, I was actively encouraged to not share…there weren’t a lot of teen librarians in the area and my former supervisors wanted to promote this air of exclusivity around what I was doing (things that seemed innovative and novel but really weren’t, at least not on a global as opposed to local scale). Now, these supervisors are/were wonderful (and blissfully retired) people. But they were wrong about sharing. It took me a long time to understand that I could respectfully disagree with them, and in fact, I’ve spoken with a few of them since that time about these things, and without fail they have encouraged me to ‘get out there’ in the hopes of supporting new librarians and continuing my own professional education. Things are changing in some wonderful ways.
After all, none of this stuff is mine at the end of the day. I’ve been able to take some non-library things and make them library things, but I haven’t, as of yet, invented anything. Translation is not creation. There are no patents pending. I’ve sent this Escape Room manual out to over 50 people across the country (and world…hey there, Canada and Japan!) so far, and they’ve shared it with who-knows-who out there. It’s gone. It’s away from me. I’ve heard back from a few people who have said it is helpful, which is terrific. There’s also been a lot of silence and non-response…which makes me wonder if it’s just way too much information. (I am not into the whole brevity thing, and I consider myself a hyper-verbal, deeply strange outsider even though I’ve been doing this thing in this spot for a while. It’s a bit of a posture, a bit of a stance.) At this point, it is what it is. Someday I’ll cut it down a bit. After I write some more…
Anyway, if this manual, written since I had a hunch that I’d be passing the baton to a colleague for the next go-round, is of any help breaking down this complex program so it is accessible to librarians, particularly those with little experience with live-action gaming events, that’s great. If others can learn from my failures and false-starts, that’s awesome. (I have coworkers who also would prefer that I stopped advertising my mistakes and promote the idea that the ‘error’ part of ‘trial and error’ doesn’t apply to us. But I fail all the time, and I learn from it each time.) Most of all, if it means libraries are able to construct unforgettable experiences by doing something unexpected and surprising for their community, I think that’s wonderful. Share and share alike.
I don’t think I’m particularly remarkable. I love my job. I love working with teens. I love finding ways to connect them to their passions and I love to help them create a little space for themselves in our community. I love trying new things. I fight hard to advocate for the teens in my adopted town, and for libraries in general across the board.
Now, so do most people who do this job. I’m no different from librarians near and far in that regard.
So why now? Why a blog? Why another blog by a youth services librarian?
I’ve been doing this Teen Librarian thing for a little while now. I’ve gone from a fresh face doing something relatively new in this little corner of the world to an ‘old-timer,’ as a colleague recently told me. And with that, I’ve been hearing from others asking how I’ve* done it: Create a teen library service from scratch and build it into something vibrant and vital over the past 10 years.
* Really it’s, ‘we’ve’ – what a fabulous group of staff, both Teen Librarians and professionals in other departments and organizations, as well as passionate allies I’ve worked with over the years!
The truth is…I can’t remember it all. I remember a lot, but I’m cursed with a ‘mile-a-minute’ brain (and mouth). We’ve moved so fast and done so much that I’ve come to realize that I need to put it down somewhere. So why not a blog?
So this will be a bit about what I’m doing now, what I’ve done in the past, and what I hope we can accomplish in the future, here in the library and maybe beyond.