Connect, Create, Collaborate: Building Teen Services (Nearly) From Scratch

I’m the first Teen Services Librarian my library has ever had. When I started, we had a YA fiction collection and a week-long summer knitting camp for middle schoolers, but that was it. No book lists. No staff presence near the YA books. No programs, no TAB, no teen summer reading club. That’s now changed. Over the last two years, I’ve built a lot.

Since YALSA President Jack Martin’s theme for the year is “Connect, Create, Collaborate,” I thought it was a good time to reflect on some of the ups and downs of creating a teen services program (nearly) from scratch. My hope is that it’ll inspire others in similar positions and maybe even give us a way to connect and collaborate to learn from one anothers’ experiences.

In some ways, it’s nice to be the first Teen Services Librarian. I don’t have to fill anyone’s shoes. I get to decide what I want teen services to look like and then make that vision a reality (with teen input, of course!). I’m also lucky to have a supportive administration that lets me try a lot of things, learn from what doesn’t work, and keep improving the things that do work.

But, there are as well definite downsides to being the first of your kind at your library. It can be hard to find your place and hard to get support from others for what you’re doing. I recently learned that none of my programming was being advertised in the monthly e-newsletters for adults or for children because the people who write those newsletters don’t have teens on their radar. I know that I still have work to do in advocating for my teens in the library as a whole. In the meantime, I’m getting ready to launch my own teen e-newsletter.

I also sometimes just have no idea how to get from where I am to where I want to be. I’m often inspired by what I read in journals, see on blogs, or hear at conferences, but it can be difficult to find the path from “we don’t do that at all” to what someone with decades of experience is able to create. I know what I want my TAB to look like (nearly self-sufficient teens planning and executing programs themselves with minimal guidance from me), but I’m such a long way off from that right now that I don’t always know what the next step is to get closer to that vision.

It’s also been tough to get out into the community to make people aware of what we have to offer teens. In addition to being a department of one, I’m only part-time. It can be difficult to make time for anything outside the library when you’re already feeling stretched too thin by what goes on inside the library. But this is one of those things where the more you put into it, the more you get out of it. When I got more hours, I put a lot of that newly available time into outreach. I’m still waiting for full payoff from my new efforts. I know not every new relationship will bear fruit. But, I’m starting to see signs of success that encourage me to keep trying and do more.

What I’ve learned over the last two years is that you can’t just snap your fingers and have a library full of teens, a calendar full of programs, and a community that knows what you’re doing. Creating a teen services program takes time, and it takes wisdom and experience that I didn’t have before I started (and only kind of have now!).

But that need to grow quickly has pushed me to discover a lot of really great resources. I’ve used YALSA’s Public Library Evaluation Tool to decide how the growth of my department is progressing. I’d learned about the 40 Developmental Assets in library school, but I’ve now used them at work to create a vision–that I’ve put into writing–for teen services that meshes with my library’s mission statement and strategic plan. I know that might sound too management-y or like an impractical waste of time, but it’s really helped me to center myself, to know what’s important, to justify what I do, and to focus my efforts around a solid core and to ignore the things that don’t fit with that vision.

But perhaps most importantly, I’ve found other librarians who are in similar positions and who are celebrating and struggling with some of the same things I am. That loose professional network has been a place I can turn to for encouragement when I’m feeling down, for advice when I need help, and for excitement when I achieve some success. It’s been rewarding to share what I’ve learned with other people who can then try to apply that to their own growing teen services programs.

There are days when I feel like I’m not making a lot of progress. I recently visited a few teachers at the high school, and it struck me that the vast majority of kids at the school had no idea who I was or that we were doing anything for teens at the library. It was disheartening to think about how small my reach still is. But there are days when a program goes really well or when I make a connection with someone in the community or even when I have a really satisfying readers’ advisory session with a teen, and then I feel like I am building something, slowly but surely. There are ups and downs, but as long as overall, things are getting bigger and better. I think I’m doing okay.

Are any of you building a teen services program from scratch out there? Any highs or lows to share?

2 thoughts on “Connect, Create, Collaborate: Building Teen Services (Nearly) From Scratch

  1. Gretchen, this post comes at such a great time for me. I am in the same boat as far as a staff of one and no prior teen department at my library. I wish sometimes that I could just wake up and have an army of dedicated teens that want to spread my message all over their schools and groups, but that isn’t in the cards.

    I like what you said about writing out your vision. If anything it serves as a great tool for you!

    My highs come when I get to see the same kids everyday and they come to me with questions about books, movies, and dvd’s…. And my lows come in the form of poor program attendance, even when I put so much time and energy into promoting them! Grrrr. I just try to stay positive and understand persistence as the name of the game with my teens!

  2. @Ashley: I totally hear you on wanting an army of dedicated teens! I feel like I’d finally started to build a little bit of a following among a core group and now they’re all GRADUATING this spring and I have no idea what I’m going to do! It feels like so much work sometimes to be deepening relationships with kids we already know *and* building new relationships to keep up with aging-out churn. I don’t think our adult services compatriots really get that sometimes.

    The most important thing I’ve come to realize over the last two years is that it’s all about relationships. It’s about relationships with kids, with their siblings, with their parents, with teachers and school librarians and youth group leaders and staff at other youth-serving organizations and basically everyone we can reach. The more people you get to know, the more *they* help you find kids and spread the word — they basically do your work for you once you’ve gotten them started!

    It sounds like you’ve got a really great attitude and the drive to build something great. And you’re already making a difference in kids’ lives! That’s what really matters.

    Do the kids who are coming to you for media questions and recommendations have hobbies you could help them pursue? Some of my most successful programs (like our manga club or our ghost hunting team) have been suggested by patrons, and my role has just been to facilitate and try to recruit new people.

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