28 Days of Advocacy #23 – An Advocacy Success Story

Advocacy successes don’t always come quickly or easily, but reading about other libraries’ successes can give us all inspiration and hope in our efforts.

As the ALA Add It Up site’  points out, ” The most dangerous time of the day is from 3 PM to 6 PM. Public libraries provide teens with a constructive place to go during these hours, where teens can organize and participate in supervised recreational and educational activities.”

The Maplewood Memorial Library in New Jersey experienced this problem in a most extreme fashion with 50 or more teens coming into the library every afternoon to just hang out, as you can see by the following account from the YALSA Toolkit: Speaking Up for Library Services to Teens: A Guide to Advocacy.

From the Front
When Words Aren’t Enough

The Maplewood (N.J.) Memorial Library made national news when its board voted to close the library between the hours of 2:45 and 5.

The reason: An escalating pattern of disruptive-and sometimes destructive-behavior by students from a nearby middle school who inundated the library each day after school.

The board made its decision after the library had made extensive efforts to improve its programs and services for young adults and after some 10 years of discussion with community officials failed to yield a solution.

In reality, the library never did close. The mayor called an emergency meeting, and resources were found to establish a recreation center at the middle school, to hire a full-time young adult librarian and explore a better space with more computers for teens at the library. With these concessions on the table, the board agreed to rescind its decision to close the library.

Library Director Jane Kennedy offers the following insights:

Why do you think your local officials were unresponsive for so long?

Nobody knew what to do. It was a problem with no easy solution. It was easier to blow it off.

What kind of reaction did you get from the Township Council after the board’s decision?

The mayor seemed quite taken aback. He shouldn’t have been. We had told him numerous times that it was a possibility. I don’t think he thought the board had the gumption to do it. Finally, after the bad publicity, he called an emergency meeting of the library board.

What kind of response did you get from the community?

We got a lot of support from other librarians and the public. But we also got our share of intense criticism. It was an emotional issue. People said the parents are responsible, but you can’t legislate good parenting. Twenty years ago, you called a parent and they’d come bring the kid home. Now there’s no parent at home. Parents are working two and three jobs. We got the least support from the parents of the kids involved. They said we were picking on their children.

What was the library’s message?

The message was “This is for the kids and the library. The library needs to function as a library for the entire community. The kids need a place to go. They need other activities after school.” The board felt it was a community issue and the community needed to solve it.

Did anything surprise you?

The board (and I) anticipated that there would be press about the decision and that it would most likely be negative. We discussed that at length, but decided that our need to address the situation was more important than what the press may or may not say. What was surprising was the intensity. We are very close to New York City and have a number of news media professionals living here. Knowing it and experiencing it are two different things. The newspapers sensationalized it. The news crews from TV and radio were intrusive when they came to the library. They were also relentless in their pursuit of a good story. They did not always get the facts straight.

Do you have any tips for dealing with the media?

The only tip I have is to have one spokesperson and refer all reporters etc. to him/her. Also, we tried to stick to the message in the board statement. That is not easy because they will try to get you to go off message and into another direction. Eventually you are knocked off the front page by something else and things go back to normal.

What advice would you give other libraries about advocacy in general?

Don’t make a threat you don’t intend to carry out. Other than that, keep talking, keep meeting. We only had one card. That was changing our hours, and we played it. Some people thought the board was “crying wolf” just to get attention, but we were fully prepared to carry out the closing. It would have forced people who were using the library as day care to find other solutions, and it would have broken the sheer habit the kids had of just going to the library because there was nowhere else to go.

How would you describe the library’s relationship with the Township Council now?

All things considered, it’s pretty good. I think the mayor realized he should have been talking (and listening) to the board more. He’s now coming to board meetings. There were some hard feelings but no finger pointing. The council and mayor did realize the library had been trying to tell them for years how bad it was. I think there might even be some respect for the board that they made this controversial and difficult decision for what they thought was the “greater good”.

The Story Behind the Story

What the public didn’t hear as explained by Library Director Jane Kennedy:

The board made its decision after some 10 years of discussion with community officials failed to find a solution, and after the library had exhausted all other options within its means.

A Teen Advisory Group was started four years ago. A children’s librarian was designated a part-time young adult librarian; afterschool monitors were hired, and afterschool programming begun. Behavior policies and procedures were carefully crafted. Staff was given special training both in adolescent behavior and security measures.

Two years ago, the library hired a consultant to conduct focus groups with teens. The results, reported to township officials, were not surprising, says Kennedy. “The kids wanted a recreation center, a place to hang out with their friends, relax, have fun. We were getting kids who didn’t particularly want to be here but there was no place for them go. We were the de facto recreation center.”

Library staff worked with school, township, police and recreation officials to explore solutions, but were stymied by a lack of resources. The mayor appointed a youth task force, but after a year there was little progress. Meanwhile, the situation at the library continued to worsen, generating complaints both from patrons and staff.

In reality, the library never did close. An emergency meeting was held and resources were found to establish a recreation center at the middle school. The mayor also agreed to provide the library with additional support, including funds for 10 computers. With these concessions on the table, the board agreed to rescind its decision to close the library.

The library now has security guards instead of monitors and a full-time young adult librarian. It has hired a consultant to make recommendations about a separate YA area. The staff had a refresher session on how to deal with kids. Some 120 kids have signed up to go to the Hub, the new afterschool program at the middle school) and on any given day, about 60 kids attend.

Says Kennedy: “These are the same kids that were wondering aimlessly in the library. We had said all along they need a place to go after school. The community solved the problem, but it took a rather drastic step to get them to come up with the resources to do so.”

Ma’lis Wendt
Chair, Young Adult Advocacy Task Force

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2 Comments

  1. It is so wonderful and inspiring to hear a success story! Thank you for sharing this with us. Sometimes, it seems like all we hear are the negative stories, so it is good to hear some positive stories once in a while to remind us why we are advocates and what could possibly happen if we are persistent.

  2. Considering all the bad press this issue got at first, it’s really great to know the story behind the story and to know how well it all turned out. Bravo to all concerned!

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