Category Archives: Team

What’s Next

‘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.

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I think everyone from Long Island has, or knows someone who has this map…

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.)

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Kidding. Jersey is cool…but it’s not L.I.

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.

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Less desk, more this…

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.

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Me, until it’s really time to go…

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.

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Me, circa mid-May 2017

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!

han

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Winter: Stuff and Things

For me and many of my colleagues, the winter months are dominated by One Book One Town – I’ve been a co-chair of our community reading initiative for eight of the past 10 years and as it’s our big anniversary season, things have been extra-intense in the best way. We have chosen two titles (Books for Living by Will Schwalbe and A Child of Books by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston) to celebrate the power of reading and the primacy of story in our culture and lives. Our signature event, where we bring our author to town, has been postponed due to Snowpocalypse Stella (currently beating a military tattoo of hail on the roof of my apartment) so this OBOT is going to stretch on a bit longer than normal.

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Overused, but whatever, it’s how the Northeast feels today

But teen events and outreach and other duties continue, so the winter seems to pass in a blaze of activity, speeding away from me and leaving little time to write. So here is a quick update. I hope to go back and detail most of this stuff, but, like my television-watching habits, there tends to only be time to move forward and never a chance to go back and pick up what I have missed. (For example, I know I’d love Battlestar Galactica. I know it is never going to happen.)

Anyway:

Our winter sessions of the Getting Ready for College series kicked off with our annual Summer Jumpstart event (about courses, camps, internships and other things to do during those hazy days that help students stand out during the super-stressful admissions season), presented by one of our high school Career and College counselors, Alice. She’s one of my favorite people in town, a frequent program-planning partner and a great ally in spreading the word about library services to teens and parents. We run 4-5 GRFC sessions each season on all sorts of ‘post-high school/college-bound’ topics  and while they tend to be ‘adult-heavy’ in terms of attendance (even the test prep ones, which will always bewilder me…) this one had about an even split between teens arriving independently and adults. Like all our speakers in this series, Alice presents her work pro bono, sharing her expertise with the community for free and helping those who might be unable to afford or access the ‘college-counselor-for-hire’ market and the essential information it provides to navigate this increasingly complicated process.

Just a few days after our awesome all-ages Hamilton event, I once again collaborated with our local University, this time with a teaching librarian, Matthew, for an all-ages take on the ‘Fake News’ phenomenon. It was another wonderful extension of a community partnership I’ve been nurturing for some time, since we see a lot of college students at our public library, particularly around exam times. We set a fast-paced program called ‘Trust or Truthiness,’ where we addressed some of the underlying psychology of how ‘alternative facts’ can spread (confirmation biases and the anchoring effect), who benefits from false information, why it’s important to seek out and find the sources which both present the news you need which strive to do so in a professional, verifiable fashion, and how to spot clickbait, with video tutorials from the wonderful Checkology curriculum by the News Literarcy Project. Matthew and I made a great team, passing the ‘presentational baton’ easily between each other, and attendees, which included teens, teachers and adults, had very positive reactions (though some adults were slightly put-out that we wouldn’t just ‘tell them what to look at’ in terms of ‘good news sites.’ We continually stressed that being a participant in a democracy means that we, as citizens, are going to have to do a little work for it now and then) so we know it was a success. I’ve been advocating for more of these ‘mixed’ programs for teens and adults together so I’m glad to have another great example of how engaged young people can bring their intellect, experience, and perspective to the community conversation. Our library is just getting started on this topic and I feel like we can’t address it, or highlight the library’s role in combating it, enough.

Our third Escape Room series was also a huge success…so far. We lost two days of sessions due to snow. I accept that I brought this upon myself when I designed an original game called ‘Escape the Arctic’ for a February run. I kind of adore some of the new puzzles I created for this game, and I’ll certainly write more about them once it is all well and truly done. One of the highlights of this third new game was that I was able to invite local librarians to come and play, creating a nice impromptu workshop on game design, which was valuable for me, with more conference presentations and teaching gigs at the State Library planned for 2017. We are going to run make-up sessions for the registered families and teens who lost their time due to the bad weather (of course, as I write this, it is blizzarding outside, with more snow to come on Sunday.) I have promised that next Winter’s session will be some variation on the theme of ‘Escape the Tropics.’

My favorite moment of the games thus far: A player yelling at his team that someone lost a key…that was in his hand. We’ve all been there, friend!

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A nice thing: I was featured in our local paper due to the continued popularity of the Escape Room manual. (I need to edit/refine that…someday…soon.)

Our monthly Service Saturday drop-in volunteer program continues. We are just about through the super-intense ‘confirmation season’ where teens who need hours for their religious obligations flood the library. We hit an all-time high of 28 individual volunteers in one six-hour day. Last year we furnished over 500 hours to local teens and we are on-track to crush that previous record. This is one of the most essential services (no pun intended) that we provide our teen community, and while it leaves me with not a drop of energy at the end of the day, I’m proud that our library can be responsive to the needs of young people. And it just keeps growing…

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Action shot of Service Saturday

Our first big One Book One Town program was the revival of an oldie-but-goodie: Reader’s Theatre! (I love getting to dredge up those old stage skills from my college days.) We’ve done several of these based on previous OBOT titles but this time it was different: An experiential show where the audience toured the library, encountering actors in different spots and nooks all around the building. We used A Child of Books as our jumping-off point, and each performer read a selection from a classic title featured in that amazing picture book or a beloved folktale. (I got to read my favorite, The Crane Wife.)

Crane Wife
I was violently ill that whole weekend, but it was still a dream come true. And feathers!

What made this Readers Theatre truly remarkable was the incredible set and prop design by one of our Children’s librarians, the astoundingly-talented Kristina (who is also the person who brought A Child of Books to OBOT for consideration, because she gets it. I’m so glad that she’s part of the committee.) I’m still in awe of the work she did to bring these stories to life in the most evocative ways. Our cast, made up of library staff, adult, and teen community members, all got to play their parts in the incredible landscapes Kristina not only created, but put up in the very short window of time between the library’s closing and the after-hours event. She’s a true marvel, that one. The family audience enjoyed the show and many learned some new stories from around the world along the way. It was a great kickoff to OBOT season and a dynamic celebration of a pitch-perfect picture book.

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For Alice’s Adventures…

What’s next? Working with one of our high schools to refine their ‘Summer Symposium’ program (which I will certainly be detailing soon, as it’s another incredible library/school collaboration), Jen’s ninth-annual Peeps diorama contest at our Branch Teen Center, at least two (maybe SIX?!) all-day-marathon book-talking/outreach sessions at the high schools, more Librarians on Loan visits to facilitate private book club discussions, GRFC sessions on test prep, admissions, financial planning and performing arts admissions, some with fantastic presenters I have been working with for eight years now (wow!), and Fandom Madness IV, with teens taking on even more responsibility in designing and executing this beloved event.

Oh, and the One Book One Town signature event with several hundred people at the University Arts Center.

Oh, and vacation…to SCOTLAND! Bucket list level stuff for me.

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The view from my back deck, about halfway through the storm

But really, what’s next is shoveling. All the shoveling.

UPDATE: How did I forget our third-annual How to Win Your Oscar Pool program! It’s one of my favorite non-teen programs of the year, where my colleague, the brilliant Philip and I ‘Siskel & Ebert’ our way through the year in film, sharing information on how to make predictions and giving our own opinions on what should win. I think I love it because we get to share our expertise (although this is relative, at least for me when co-presenting with our library A/V guru!) and passion and be all snarky for the audience, which really seems to get a kick out of it. This year was great fun, but not as contentious as usual because, for once, we were in agreement about the best film of the year…and well…what do you know…?!

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Just an excuse to feature Moonlight again…

 

OBOTery

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.

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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.)

Panic at the Quick Center
Our ‘Whaaat?’ faces show what it feels like to run OBOT

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. 

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If you think ‘kid’ stuff doesn’t have the power to change your life…

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:)

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Always this. It’s just the way it is. It’s okay. In fact, it’s amazing.

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.

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In a state of disbelief: He was right behind me, backstage. This was really happening!

(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.

Let’s go!

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.

Genre Circle

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.

Wonderful…Dangerous

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.

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A treasured gift from my colleague and genre circle-r K.C.

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.

 

Lucky

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.

marissa
Some Molly Weasley realness…

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.

Jen, approximately

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.

muskox

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.

Share and Share Alike

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.

fandoms
Whaat? (CLA 2016)

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.

Fandom Madness!

brackets and notes

I grew up a soccer orphan. My brother played and my dad coached so my weekends were full of fields and watching kids run around and being bored and contrary. My dad also played in an adult intramural league. His teammates were mostly European and Asian transplants to Long Island and they called themselves ‘Inter(national) United.’ They were great fun to watch, although I’d have never admitted it at the time, as they played and shared a camaraderie that transcended language. (The guys also exposed me, at too young an age,  to an infinite world of exotic curse words…but anyway.)

This blog will probably go on a bit about our success with pop culture programming, but it is likely true that no one library program has brought as much joy to my nerdy heart as our Fandoms group, which began back in September of 2013. I’d been thinking about extending our pop-culture events from one-off bonanzas based on movies and book series into something that could be done on a weekly basis and that would look more like a traditional book club, a type of program that I had consistently failed at for seven and a half years. (And still. For the life of me, I can’t make a teen book club work. And I’ve tried every last permutation. And this is a reading town...) I was looking for a way to treat this stuff as seriously as libraries traditionally treat books: a program that would facilitate careful and  considered analysis of TV, movies, music, comics and whatever pop culture ephemera might arise. For teens. That was inclusive and universal. And fun. And weekly.

After struggling with these vague notions of bringing Tumblr to life in my library (oof) while vacuuming my apartment (cleaning = brainstorming), I remembered, for some reason, my dad and Inter United. Why not catch-’em-all (I’m sure I’m not Pokemon-ing right…), a program that any one in any fandom could come to? A Fandoms United!

Here we are, almost three years later and this little idea has blossomed into something very special, and something big – an average of 32 teens each Friday afternoon. I couldn’t be prouder of the teens who come each week – they really get what we are trying to do. The goal of this program is to help foster a community for these teens. I’m happy to say, despite some inevitable bumps in the road, we really have!

Teens mourning Li’l Sebastian

While fandom-ry is infinite, finding teen-friendly material to run a weekly program with original content will eventually drain you of the will to live, particularly if you’re invested in finding ways to get some of that good library stuff (analysis, concept introduction, learning) jammed in there in between all the squees and screams. It’s good to organize your meetings based on themes (more on the technical stuff in the future with our forthcoming Fandoms Manual) and it’s good to switch it up so you’re not just viewing stuff endlessly. Enter my favorite activity: Fandom Madness!

We are about to come to the end of our third-annual tournament, where we use formal debate skills and drill down and select our champion character.* Like any repeated program, it has evolved (and mercifully simplified) over the years. We set up a bracket system (4 groups of 8 characters as seen above), and let teens nominate fictional characters from any fandom universe one week, then vote for finalists the next week using a weighted system (1st place = 5 points, etc.). That’s where we get our brackets and the real fun begins!

motto
Fandom Madness Motto

Each character battle is heavily debated by the teens: pros, cons and contrasts. (You haven’t lived until you’ve anticipated middle schoolers making the Leslie Knope vs. Deadpool argument). People get 45 seconds to make their points according to a strict set of guidelines with which to evaluate each bracket battle. Talk about actions. Talk about friends and enemies. Talk about what groups they represent and how well they do so. Talk about character arcs over time. Do not talk about perceived hotness. Back up your statements with examples. And most of all, remember that everyone has a right to state their opinion – if it falls into these parameters. Just because someone disagrees with you it doesn’t make them less of a person and it certainly doesn’t make them stupid.

To do this right, you have to trust that your teens can go deep and then get out of their way. (Lots more on that to come…) To watch them confidently line up to make their arguments about these silly-seeming works of fiction warms my cold little civil servant soul. They come in with notes prepared, ready to defend their points of view (as seen at the top of this post.) They are so passionate, so clever, and so persuasive. They know this stuff. They know they know it, but they rarely get a chance to confidently share their expertise at home or in school, heck, in any setting. Best of all – for all that they know, they are willing to listen and be swayed. More than once I’ve seen high schoolers reconsider their position based on a sharp observation laid down by a little sixth-grader (or fetus, as the older kids uncharitably call the littles, who, of course, are the same age as when they started coming to Fandoms. It’s horrible and cute at the same time) who had, up until this point, been too shy to speak, but wasn’t willing to see Shego get bumped from the game without a fight. (Truth: I still don’t know who Shego is…)

tinaI’m a big nerd who watches an insane amount of TV, argues with her siblings about comics minutiae and reads film criticism for fun. These teens show me new angles on the things I thought I knew backwards and forwards each Friday afternoon, but never more so than in this month when we Madness.  It’s my favorite thing we do in Fandoms, apart from the Tina Belchers they make me for my birthday each year, of course.

* Our champions: Leslie Knope in 2014, and Harry Potter in 2015. Both characters are ineligible in future brackets as past winners.

UPDATE: Our 2016 winner is Toph Beifong from Avatar: The Last Airbender!