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.