The Salem Public Library was my second home growing up. Half of the massive second floor was entirely dedicated to children. The thing I never thought about as a child, however, was how the “teen” books were grouped right alongside the children’s nonfiction.
They changed this right about when I moved from middle school to high school, which you’d think would have been perfect for me. The thing was, I was terrified and uncertain of this new “teen” scene—I had no idea what it was. I thought it was for older, more mature kids.
My sophomore year of high school, I started volunteering in the children’s Discovery Room upstairs. One of the librarians who had known me practically since birth recommended that I check out their teen scene. So finally, I did.
It’s an amazing place. They converted half the basement into a space where young adults could come hang out and work after school. Shelves of YA books stretch back for miles, and there are tons of endcap displays for “what to read if you like…” One section has a TV with video games and a couch. Every time I visit, there are always kids planted on that couch. Book recommendations written by teens are taped all over the walls. Over the years, as I came back more and more, I learned about the different writing programs they offered. Recently, I visited one of these after-school writing workshops to talk about Ooligan Press and the publishing industry. The kids loved what they were doing. Sonja, the main YA librarian, gives them fun, relevant writing prompts and encourages everyone, no matter how far-out their ideas might seem. On this same visit, I learned that my library had been picked to be one of twenty-five review committees that would select books for a “top ten YA” list. They had tons of advance reader copies shipped to them, and these lined the shelves in the office. The committee at each library is made up entirely of teens—they are the ones who get to choose which YA books are the best.
Growing up around this library program and watching it flourish over the years inspired me to take a deeper look at young adult programs in libraries for my thesis. How have they developed over the years? What makes them “successful,” and what defines success? How are librarians identifying and then meeting their communities’ needs?
As I’ve been diving into this research and studying different programs over the last decade, I’ve noticed several themes among programs that seem to be doing well and gaining attention. The first of these themes is the most critical: teen involvement in the decision-making process. Like the Salem Public Library, many libraries have committees or teen advisory boards made up entirely of young adult patrons. They give their input on everything from the kinds of books they want to read more of to their favorite authors to the programs they want to see at their own libraries. Another common theme is proper staff training. Libraries who employed a YA specialist rather than just a general librarian saw a significant increase in the number of students who visited and checked out books. One last theme was that students were more likely to come when the YA section was in a comfortable physical environment that allowed them to socialize with their friends. The days of the harsh, shushing librarian are over—the library is now a social space, one where teens can talk and debate and discuss the things they’re reading or simply enjoying in the world.
My hope as I continue to do this research is that I can create some kind of framework or best practices guide that can aid librarians as they continue to develop and maintain programs targeting teens. In this way, hopefully we can match the growing genre of YA with the space that teens need to find their identity.