Consistent Programming and Unrelenting Empathy: Building a teen department from scratch

As things begin to open up again, you, like the rest of us of in teen librarianship, are probably looking around wondering when the kids are going to show back up. I have seen a few of mine (and worried about so many more, but that’s a post from another time) but as someone who deals mainly with high schoolers, I genuinely have no idea who is going to walk back through my doors, especially since two years of my kids are now done with school. This might be a weird time, but I plan to re-build the same way I built it before: getting the word out and then talking to whoever shows up.

When I started my career as a teen librarian back in 2007, I was greeted by a decent sized room with a weird collection and an already established (though small) Teen Advisory Board. I was not a full-time teen librarian; mostly I was a reference librarian who ordered the teen books. But I hit the ground running with programming and teen services grew quickly. Here are some things I did then and will do now.

Use what you have: That already established teen advisory board was a small group, but they were teens devoted to the library and super nerdy (my kind of people). They told me what they used to do AND what they wanted to do, and we started with that. Luckily, in 2007 anime was hitting a big swell in popularity, but as streaming was still several years down the road, that plucky little anime club pulled in lots of kids (since the library was the only place in the community to watch it).

If you’ve been virtual gaming with your kids throughout these long months, maybe give it a refresh and find something new (or do trivia instead)! We are just beginning to add some virtual gaming, and it’s been great to see the few regulars who have been in to grab books excited to see the event flyer, especially since I can tell them, honestly, that we hope to start some in-person programming in the fall. We are also in the midst of a massive construction project, so programming is currently limited by space, too. Gaming has been our past, and will certainly be our future. Anyone know if the kids are still playing Smash Bros these days?

Listen, Listen, Listen: Ask every kid with a stack of books what they grabbed and what was just returned. Just talking to them for a few moments helps create those important connections and makes it easier to convince a teen to return. Is there anything they can’t find? What did they do during lockdown other than play Among Us? Is there a manga series we’re missing? I recently discovered that Demon Slayer is popular, but we didn’t have it (this has since been remedied). Have you ordered the Invincible graphic novels yet? That Amazon show is very popular! Which leads me to the next thing…

Get back in touch with YOUR teens’ culture: I was incredibly lucky that anime was hitting that stride way back in 2007, as it helped immensely in growing my programming. Those kids came to other events (often with friends who weren’t into anime) and those friends told me about stuff they wanted to do. There are a lot of places online to look for what’s hot, but the only way to know what’s popular in your community is to ask. Hunger Games did not go out at my library until the movies showed up, and in 2007 teens in Warren, Ohio were still on Myspace. Maybe your kids are still playing Among Us, but maybe they’ve moved on to Deceit (which is also free to play).

I’ll be honest, I don’t know what the programming situation is going to look like. In Before Times™, we were doing a lot of cooking + food events, but I suspect those are a long way off. Maybe showing a movie would a fun, free event you could offer, and something they’ve been missing out on? I personally hope to do an Among Us LIVE event similar to what Funhaus and Smosh did, but that might have to wait until next summer.

Keep your programming consistent: This is my number one advice when it comes to programming. Ideally, do something at the same time every time; preferably on a weekly basis. If you must do it on a monthly basis, schedule it so it’s memorable, like the first Thursday or first Saturday. Gaming has been on Thursday nights here for at least six years. Keeping it consistent makes it easier for both teens AND parents to remember.

Get the word out: The chapter I wrote for YALSA’s summer learning manual is literally how I market everything, and it was included in it’s entirety both in American Libraries and on their website. The presentation I gave at the 2018 YALSA Symposium is also chockful of good stuff.

But the best way to build your program is through word of mouth, and that megaphone should be attached to your most loyal teens. Start building the connections, and it’ll happen – ESPECIALLY talk to any new teens you see, and ask how they heard about whatever it is they’re there to do. It might be slow at first, but with consistency, your teens will get what they need.

Also – find out if you can send information for the morning announcements at school. Sometimes your teens will know which teacher/staff member is in charge of that, if you can’t find it yourself.

Ensure your space is safe for everyone: If a teen needs to talk, listen. Post signs that declare your space to be an LGBTQIA+ safe space and bully-free zone, and that intolerant language is grounds for removal. (Any racist or homophobic language in our space gets one warning. Not one warning per day; one warning per person, period). If a group is being terrible, tell them they’re done for the day and escort them out of the building. Don’t take it personally when they call you names – they’re mad at you. Of course they’re going to. It doesn’t matter.

Then you have to welcome them back, when their time out is done, whether that’s the next day or in a year. Don’t hold a grudge against their ill-chosen behavior, but DO hold them accountable. If they mess up again, you must follow-through. I recently attended a webinar that suggested this language: “if you want to stay here, you have to stop doing that.”

But safe spaces go beyond just behavior – it extends to your collection and programming too. Ensure that diverse materials are prominently displayed and that your events are inclusive for all. If you find that your programs are predominately attended by only one facet of your population (eg, the white kids), figure out why, and then do something about it.

CARE: This is where that ‘relentless empathy’ comes from. You have to actually care about your teens. You have to care that they have access to Roblox and books you wish they didn’t read and that they’re at the library all day making the room stink, bringing all their glorious teen angst and drama with them. Ask about their days, remember their names, and know that for a lot of library teens, you might be the only adult in their lives other than their parents. When I was a teen, I was involved in everything under the sun (marching band, FFA, drama club, newspaper, a job, youth group at church, etc + so forth) and had plenty of adults in my life. I find that most of us working with teens were also very involved, and maybe that’s why we feel called to work with this population.

The truth is, I don’t actually care about the thing they’re talking about. I often really and truly don’t (though it is really fun when I do!). What I do care about, though, is that they have things in their lives they are that excited about, whether it’s a band, an anime, a book, or a really funny TikTok, and for that reason, I am delighted to let them talk as long as they want. Because that’s how you develop empathetic people – you show them you care about them, and then they learn to care about others. And if you don’t, well, no amount of pizza or gift cards or super fun events is going to help you build your department. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If you don’t care about the kids, get out of my profession. Teen services isn’t about stats – it’s about that second word: service. Serving teens so they become great people. And you can’t do that if you don’t care about them.

I know it might be a long journey back to 20+ kids hanging out after school, but I look forward to those days again. If you have a tip I didn’t mention, post it here in the comments. Stay strong, fellow teen services staff. We got this.

Geekin’ out @ the library…

So… Teen Tech Week 2012: I LOVE LOVE LOVE this theme. It might be because I’m pretty much a major geek myself, currently obsessing over all things Doctor Who & Sherlock, but overall, I think the theme is quite inspired. What with the celebrations of all things geek right now in pop culture (Big Bang Theory is the most popular sitcom at the moment, after all) & the incredible popularity of Tumblr, which has taken LiveJournal’s place as the social networks where all the geeks gather, it’s just perfect.

Here’s what I’m up to:
» Our library system is hosting two gaming tournaments: Just Dance & Smash Bros. I had originally planned to do a Rock Band tournament, but when it became quite clear that although the teens really enjoy playing, they can barely get through a song… I switched to Smash Bros. Perhaps they’ll be ready for it next year.

» Every year we have a tech survey – so far we’ve done music & social network questions, but this year we’re focusing on television. They fill out the survey (with about three questions), & then we pull a random winner out of the entrants. The prizes vary, but are usually books, candy, & whatever stuff I have lying around.
The questions:

  1. What are your favorite tv shows? Name up to six.
  2. How do you watch it? Circle all that apply: As it airs on TV / DVR/Tivo / Online Streaming (, official websites, etc) / Purchase individual episodes / TV on DVD / “Acquire” through various websites
  3. How do you find out about new shows?

I’m definitely looking forward to finding out what they have to say! These are always immensely helpful in getting to know them.

» We’re also hosting a multi-fandom costume party (which I’ve called, so cleverly, the “Geek Out @ Your Library Costume Party“) where I’m inviting them to dress in any character from any universe. In addition to just showcasing our geekiness, we’ll also be having lots of fandom fun with trivia games & crafts.

» The final thing I’m doing to celebrate, outside of the usual displays & decorations, is a passive ALL THE FANDOMS matching game. Personally, I love stealth fandom stuff – rather than wear a t-shirt with the Doctor Who logo, I’d much rather wear something that states “bow ties are cool.” Or something with the leaf village symbol, rather than the main Naruto logo. In the spirit of this, I’ll be creating a display with numbered images or quotes from 25-30 fandoms, & have them name the fandom to which each thing belongs. I’ll add a picture once it’s done, but it ought to be pretty gnarly.

What’s your library up to?

TRW 2011: Fine Amnesty


This year, I pushed for a “Fresh Start” fine amnesty for the teens, & with several meetings & lots of finagling with various policies, we made it happen!

Our idea for this was that there are lots of teens who can’t use their cards because of old fines or because of family issues, & quite frankly, that sucks! Our library is in a very high-poverty area, & as soon as they hit $25 in fines, they’re “sent” to collections. In some cases, that’s one book with some extra in overdue fines, & if you have no money, you definitely can’t pay it off. Add that to the fact that we can’t actually collect money from minors in collections, & we’re looking at a lot of money sitting that we’re never going to get. We went into meetings overflowing with positive vibes & just about everyone agreed! Some kinks needed worked out, but overall, it went swimmingly!

Here’s how it worked:
1. We offered this at every library location during Teen Read Week.
2. Because of how our library card policies are, we could only include teens ages 13-17.
3. I created a brief survey, & every teen with fines could fill it out & return it to our circulation desk to see if they were eligible.
4. We decided that we would waive up to $50 in fines.
5. Teens who did not have a card any more could have a new card free of charge, in addition to the $50 fine waiver.
6. As this is a one-time-only fresh start, the code “TRW2011” was added to their records. (I’m definitely hoping to make this an annual thing)
7. At our library, if any member of the family is in collections, we block all cards. For teens who could no longer use their cards because of this, if they completed the survey, they were unlinked & given access once more.

Over our five branches, bookmobile, & main location, we had about three dozen teens participate & waived approximately $1000 in fines. So many of my “regular” teens who are constantly here can check out books once more, & it’s just so thrilling to see happy teens checking out stacks of new stuff!

Of Ship Breakers & Hunger Games: About That WSJ Article…

Ugh. I can’t imagine I’m alone when I say that I’m really tired of hearing about this. EVERYONE has talked about it, & now, so am I.

If, by some miracle, you don’t know what I’m talking about, skim through the offending article. It’s pretty terrible, but to be perfectly honest, my first thought was one of sarcasm, rather than alarm. I mean, come on, YA people. Someone is attacking teen lit? Is it a day that ends in Y? Defending teen lit comes with the territory. Why was this particular article so shocking & alarming? Frankly, I’m still reeling from James Frey’s “teen lit is easy to write” comment far more than this is bothering me.

But, I’ll throw my two cents in if I must. Here’s what I think: THIS WOMAN HAS NO IDEA WHAT SHE’S EVEN TALKING ABOUT.

Let me tell you why…

She begins with a tale of her FRIEND going to a bookstore & being frustrated that YA is filled with death & despair – which, let’s own it guys, IT IS. Teen lit right now is full of vampires, zombies, & other undead/not dead/can’t die supernatural beasties. I think Tamora Pierce said it best when she asked if the next big teen thing could please have living people in it. But the thing is, it’s so full of death because the teen years are the first time you’re confronted with your own mortality. Teens are obsessed with it because it’s first time they’ve really thought about it! Sometimes it’s just that they’re mature enough, but often, it’s because someone in their school dies. A car accident, a suicide, an illness… it’s one thing if grandpa dies when you’re young, it’s another if the girl next door who’s a year younger dies.

But here’s where the author loses her cred, at least with me – that popular stuff? Is usually NOT the hardcore stuff the author goes on to complain about. I rarely, if ever, see the hardcore stuff in any bookstore. A Great & Terrible Beauty? Sure. Going Bovine? No. Elizabeth Scott’s fluffy fun romance? It’s on display next to Sarah Dessen. Living Dead Girl? Maybe one if you’re lucky.

You know why? BECAUSE TEENS WANT THE FUN FLUFFY STUFF. I would say that probably only 10-15% of that hardcore stuff is what’s actually being published. Yeah, it’s awesome, & yeah, it’s on my shelves & I proudly put it on display, but it’s the House of Night & Hunger Games & Mortal Instruments & all the not-great knock-offs that they want. My hardcore readers, especially my TAB members, will pick up anything, especially if its on the Best Books list or if I’ve read it. But the casual reader who just wants an escape? They aren’t going to grab Cut. They’re going to grab Boys, Bears, & A Serious Pair of Hiking Boots, if for no other reason than it has a great cover.

When I go to our local bookstore, I see lots of the fluffy stuff. Vampires, teen romance, re-pubs of stuff from the 90s in shiny new covers. I don’t see the hardcore stuff. I rarely see more than one copy of John Green’s works, which one could hardly call hardcore; just more Clique, Gossip Girl, & Pretty Little Liars. Which is fine, but I’d be surprised if the author’s local bookstore even stocks what she’s concerned about.

The author also mentions the extreme violence of Hunger Games, & there’s no denying that it is so. But in the recommended blurb next to the article, Ship Breaker is the first rec. Although I LOVED LOVED LOVED it, I personally found it MUCH more in your face violent than Hunger Games, if for no other reason than it’s adults going after children. When I saw this, I didn’t even finish the article. How out of touch is she?

In my library, I have a display & corresponding book list of Books that won’t make you blush! There’s also a sign posted, welcoming parents to the teen area & gently explaining that hey, teen fiction covers the full range of the teenage years. I invite them to talk to me, because I’ll be honest, there are plenty of books in my beloved & carefully crafted collection that no, I don’t think are appropriate for a thirteen-year-old to read.  That doesn’t mean that I don’t think Will Grayson Will Grayson shouldn’t be required reading for every student in America (how much would you love a teacher who read that in his classroom?), but I do think that it’s be better once you’re older. Some books just ought to be saved for the age at which you are ready! As a high school junior who was a big reader (I did become a librarian, after all), I was extremely uncomfortable reading The Color Purple. I wasn’t ready for it, & I didn’t finish it. Why is adult fiction always considered okay for teens, but teen fiction not?

You’re a very different person as a thirteen-year-old than when you’re a sixteen-year-old. At thirteen, you still love Hannah Montana. At sixteen, you love Lady Gaga. At thirteen, you ought to be reading Princess Diaries. At sixteen, How I Live Now. Someday, maybe, people will get that. But until then, we’re going to be explaining this over & over & over. Everyone take a deep breathe, talk to the parents of your teens, & stop panicking every time someone who doesn’t get it writes an article. We’ve got more important things to worry about – summer reading is in full swing, & my manga shelves are nearly empty!

When books don't belong at the library…

Linda Braun, the teen-tech guru, wrote a very good post over at the YALSA blog late last week. Now, before I go any further, I will say that although Linda Braun is amazing at what she does, I don’t always agree with her views of teens & technology – or at least, the view she sees is very different from what I see. The teens in the area I serve know very little about the Internet outside of myspace & Runescape; in fact, when I asked about it, none of them had even heard of Second Life, never mind played there. But what she does is invaluable to a lot of us (even me!) who don’t use all the new-fangled technology as soon as its out there – & she often comes up with fabulous ways it could be implemented in the library.

Anyways! So there’s a school that’s decided to turn its library into a digital paradise – which means no more books. It turns out that as of last spring, only 43 books had been checked for the year, & many of those were children’s books for the facultys’ children (staff remain on campus). The librarian at this school is heartbroken, & librarians & bibliophiles everywhere are responding in hysterics, as though this one library (in a 9-12 boarding school; my guess is that its college prep) will be the first of many to do this. & of course, the eternal TEENS DON’T READ mantra that the media loves to tout; a thriving teen lit industry begs to differ. I’m very grateful to Linda for writing her post in which she asks us to give this more in-depth thought, rather than simply panicking over the loss of the printed word. Her points are valid & absolutely right – there are cons, but there are lots of pros as well.

Things that I would like to say about it, sans hysteria:

Thing 01: Many libraries spread themselves way too thin trying to offer everything, when in reality it would be better for resource expenditure & for their patrons if they simply sat down & really took a good look at the purpose of their library. Research? Popular fiction? Classroom support? My guess is that this school took a look at what was being offered, & chose to turn the library into a research center. The best way to do that, especially in a college-prep, boarding school with very connected teens, is to go digital.

Thing 02: If you didn’t have to buy books, magazines, & other physical materials, think of the databases & information you could purchase! These students will have access to so much fabulous material!

Thing 03: As an MLIS student, I didn’t use my academic library once. Well, no, that’s not entirely true. Rather, I should say, I relied on the electronic resources made available by my university that were accessible via the Internet – and from my apartment. But as for all those expensive reference volumes? Nada. In my reference work at my job, I only rarely need to use one.

Thing 04: If this campus is affluent, there’s a pretty good chance that these teens are used to purchasing their fiction. Generation X & later prefers the bookstore – it’s more hip, more inviting, & often times, friendlier. Sorry – the reference librarian stereotype exists for a reason. As long as these teens’ “reading for fun” needs are being met elsewhere, I’ve no problem with this approach.

Thing 05: My guess? These teens are connected. These are the teens all those companies aim their products at – these are the teens that use everything digital; their photography, their books, their music. They download tv to watch on their iPods. They do their assignments on their laptops at the mall. A digital library is going to be incredibly helpful for these teens.

Thing 06: If the librarian had no input, that sucks. Big time. What’s the use of her professional opinion if they didn’t even bother to ask her?

Thing 07: The printed book still reigns supreme, no matter what this school or what the folks at Kindle may hope you believe.

Thing 08: This school won’t be the last one to do something like this. It remains to be seen if this will be a viable option for more of us.

Basically, to sum up: is this radical? Sure! But if this meets the needs of the students, bravo for them. Isn’t the purpose of a library just that – to meet the needs of its users?

Sometimes, things just feel right.

In addition to feeling that what I do is important & enjoying teen lit, I honest-to-god love teens. I find them fascinating & wonderful in all their annoying ways – they’re just discovering so much for the first time & are finally old enough to emotionally handle most of the things life throws at them. I love talking with them, spending time with them, & doing as much as I can to make their lives all the more amazing, whether that means ordering extra copies of their favorite books, wiping out a few bucks worth of fines, or offering programs that make their days. I know that teen services falls below just about everything else libraries offer, & I know I’ll never get much recognition for my efforts, but it really & truly is my bliss.

So whenever I see teens with a big pile of books, or sitting about Teen Central reading, I always bound up to them & ask what they’ve got. Sometimes I’m met with a face that’s terrified to say anything (I am a bundle of energy when dealing with them, & since nearly every other adult who would speak to them in our library would do so simply to yell them, it’s understandable), but those who know me cheerfully let me know.

Today, as I was sitting at the desk, a guy around 13 or 14 sat down on the chairs near our desk, a teen book in hand. When I asked, “Whacha readin’?” I recieved this answer in response:

The second Triskellion book! You gave me the first one, & it was the best thing I ever read!

And then he buried his face in said book. Today, the Universe feels just perfect. No award could ever replace the feeling I have right now.

Five truths about teens

A lot is said about teens & the Millenial generation. Not all of it is true. Here are five truths, at least about the teens around here.

1.) They don’t use Twitter. They’d rather spend their precious minutes texting their friends, not a website.

2.) They’re really not as computer savvy as you think they are. Sure, they know how to do the stuff they like to do – downloading music, maybe futzing with their MySpace layout – but when it comes to knowing how to search Google & find the latest …whatever… not so much.

3.) Most of them are still on MySpace. They like the customization capabilities, & everyone they know is still there. Even though most of the college age & older considers MySpace the “Detroit of the Internet,” their younger counterparts haven’t made the switch.

4.) They’re unbelievably fickle. If it was Naruto last month, don’t think that’s still true this month – they’ve probably moved on to Deathnote, & now think the knuckleheaded ninja is lame. Everything changes at the same breakneck pace these days – even if Twilight shows no signs of relenting.

5.) The best way to figure out what’s going on is to ask them. I know a lot of teens are into Second Life, but the ones around here have never even heard of it. What’s hot in some places hasn’t made it big where you are yet – & maybe never will. I adore the Luxe series, but I can’t get any of them to pick it up.

I’ll do more of these in the future – just thought I’d start with some of the broader ones.