Learning as I go: building a foundation for teen services

I’m about four months in to my first professional position out of grad school. I was very lucky to land a YA position just a few months after graduating, and I really like my library, my coworkers, and the community that supports the library. But as a new librarian, I’m finding that even though I have my MLS, I still have a lot of learning to do in providing a strong teen services program.


I’m not just a new librarian: I’m also in a newly created position. Until I started, our head of collection development was selecting all of the teen materials and other staff members would occasionally step up to do a teen program, but there hadn’t been a coordinated, sustained effort to serve teens. During all of my coursework, I’d never considered the possibility that I wouldn’t just be stepping into someone else’s shoes and inheriting an already running program, but I was excited to accept that challenge. Building my own program has been thrilling, especially since I’ve been given a lot of freedom to try things, but it’s also been kind of terrifying.

There are some things that have been going really well. I embarked on a massive weeding project and made the case for interfiling the paperback and hardcover teen fiction, which has been well-received by both patrons and staff members. I’ve been cranking out book lists and series shelf labels and other readers’ advisory tools. I lobbied for a small desk to be set up in the teen area (which is really far away from the reference desk) and rearranged the furniture and shelving to make it feel more like a dedicated space. I’m proud of all of this and I think that it has greatly improved what we’re offering our teens.

But working on all of those projects took time, and it all seemed really important, and we never have enough time for everything we want–so what I didn’t spend as much time doing was sitting at that new desk getting to know my patrons. Sure, I did a survey within my first couple weeks to see what kinds of programs teens at the library would be interested in and what their pop culture interests were. And when I could, I was doing on-desk time and was always so thrilled when I had the chance to do readers’ advisory (I’m quickly learning it’s my favorite part of my job). It just felt like I needed to do those things before I could properly serve my patrons–except that that “must do” list kept getting longer.

So when I launched our new YA programming schedule and no one came to my events, I was heartbroken. I’d spent so much time brainstorming, collecting cool ideas, planning, justifying with the Developmental Assets, creating posters and fliers, setting events up–and then just cleaning up after a couple sad hours in a room by myself. It hasn’t been a complete disaster: while no one ever came to my drop-in crafts during after-school hours, the drop-in gaming on a different day is drawing a small but regular crowd. And my movie nights have been mostly misses, but the screening of Harry Potter 6 the week before the seventh movie came out was a hit. And I have a very tiny, tentative Teen Advisory Board that may or may not survive but at least exists for now! But every time I planned or set up for a program, I was worrying and wondering if anyone would come.

For the new year, I took a step back and sat down to evaluate how things have been going so far. I’ve had some successes and I’m very proud of how some of my projects have turned out, but overall, I think I’ve been approaching things the wrong way. I made the mistake of trying to build a program from the top down. Because circulation and book lists and visits to community partners and programs are all concrete, and because my coursework focused on programs and collection development and literature, that’s what I was focusing on. But there’s another side to this profession, the softer, people-focused side, that I’ve been neglecting. I need to be up on the desk actually getting to know my patrons–and letting them get to know me. I need to build relationships. Doing so may not be as measurable as the rest of what I do, but it’s the absolute foundation of successful teen services.

So for 2011 and for this next month especially, I’ll be spending more time on the desk. I’m moving my hours around so I can see different patrons who are here at different times on different days. I’m even going to be spending a little time at the adult desk and the children’s desk to make myself more visible to parents and to see how those departments do things. I may not make as many book lists or do as many programs, but it’s because I’ll be building a foundation on which those other aspects of my work can be built.

Both new and more seasoned librarians: what lessons have you learned the hard way?

6 thoughts on “Learning as I go: building a foundation for teen services

  1. Good for you Gretchen! Sounds like great work.

    One thing I’d suggest is that you find time to connect with teens and other youth serving organizations outside of the library. Find time to visit the schools – and not just for booktalks but to actually spend time talking with teens, and the librarians. And, get invited to or invite yourself to meetings of local organizations that also serve youth. I know it can be hard to get outside of the building, but those connections will really help you to bring teens into the building and also connect you with the community pretty strongly.

    Good luck!

  2. Your life sounds a lot like my life. We should be friends. New librarians need to stick together.

    In my seven months as a YA librarian, I have collected a small group of teens, but they are not really readers. They are social and techie and they come to video game programs, which is great fun, but I wonder if there are other teens out there I could connect with. Somebody keeps checking out all the new YA books I’ve been buying.

    Does your library have a facebook page? I have found this is working a bit to let teens know what I have planned.

    I am impressed with your rearranging of teen space. It’s great that you have a desk there. Sounds like you are doing well with communicating with your administration.

    Keep up the good work!

  3. Building a teen program often requires growing your own teen participants. So while you work to provide programs for the entire age group keep in mind that there will be growth in attendence starting with the youngest members. As they grow your progamming grows, in scope as well as attendence. The small groups you get now tell their friends and also their siblings who then show up when they are old enough bringing their friends. A thriving teen program takes time.

    You are correct in that desk work is a way to meet teens, but the work you have done to make them feel welcome is important so don’t think the work was a mistake. Putting materials and eye catching displays in that welcoming space is part of what will draw them back. Everybody needs to find the balance of floor time and behind the scenes time that works in their library because each library is different.

    Working with the children’s and adult departments is a good idea, too. Springboard from those growing out of the children’s department programming by helping out with their programs this spring so that the participants return to your programs this fall. Talking to the parents, teachers and others that serve the teens works, too. Ask if you can put up posters or have bookmarks to give out next to the checkout or reference desks in all three areas of your library and in other community places where teens gather. Someone will see them who may tell a teen or two or a whole classroom, scout troop, church group, and/or sports team.

    Good luck this year building your foundation and growing your program!

  4. I’ve gone through a lot of trial and error with my teen advisory group (which began when I was new to my job). I feel like I’ve hit on something that works for my group. I’m happy to share my experiences if you want to email me.

  5. You are absolutely right. We are all in desperate need of people who will listen to teens – people of all ages – who will take them seriously. Few things can have such a positive impact on our future: listening, not telling. Once that confidence has been established, the rest will come.

    Please visit my blog and leave a comment. Thanks!

  6. @Linda: you are so right about connecting with other organizations serving youth in the community. I’ve been working on building a relationship with the school librarians, but I need to think bigger! I’ll be attending our community’s Networking for Youth meeting in March that brings together just those kinds of organizations and I hope it’ll be a springboard for great partnerships!

    @Erin: I’ve been putting bookmarks with a list of our programs for the month in any YA book that’s on hold at the circ desk. I can’t actually tell if that’s doing anything, but it’s a way to target readers and not just those kids who are already in the library. Maybe that’ll work for you? And yes, we have a Facebook page, although I’m not using it to any great capacity yet.

    @Mari: what you said about targeting younger members as a way to grow a teen program is spot-on. This month I started doing tween programming for kids in 4th-6th grade as a joint effort with the children’s department. I’m looking at it as an investment that will pay off in teens who attend library programs in a few years once the tweens drop that W! Thanks a lot for the encouragement and all the ideas!

    @Julia: email sent! Hearing other people’s stories and experiences is really helpful to me. Thanks. :)

    @David: glad you’re on the being-an-advocate-for-teens bandwagon!

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