A year and a half ago, I was tasked with creating a collection of reading materials aimed at middle schoolers for my public library. These types of collections—sometimes called junior high or tween collections—are becoming more popular in response to growing demand from patrons, but creating them poses some unique challenges. In my next two blog posts, I’ll share some information on my Library’s process: we did, why we did it, what we learned, what, and how you might begin your own process of creating such a collection. This can only serve as a guideline. You will need to develop your own methods to build a collection that meets the specific needs of your community.
In this post, I will discuss reasons for having a middle school collection in the public library and first steps to creating one. The next post will be about selection guidelines for the collection, and how to use those selection guidelines.
I will use the term “middle school collection” to refer to any collection designed to serve readers in the range of ages 10-14.
Why a Middle School Collection?
A couple years ago, my library conducted focus groups and extensive surveying of our community. One refrain was that middle schoolers felt they were falling through the cracks between Youth Services and Teen Services. I was hired in the newly-created position of Middle School Librarian, and set about learning why this was happening and how I could build a collection that met middle school patrons’ needs.
One big reason middle schoolers have a tough time is because of the market. Many publishers will try to get writers to age their books up or down so they fit neatly into the “middle grade” or “young adult” marketing categories. According to book jackets, most books in these categories are for ages 8-12 or ages 12 and up. If that’s the case, then everything a 12-year-old reads is going to feel too young or too old. What about the experiences that apply to a 12-year-old, but not to an 8-year-old or an 18-year-old? These age differences are huge.
For the past several years, young adult literature has been getting older. Characters are 17, 18, or even going to college. What was once “edgy” is now the norm. And that’s perfectly fine, but a lot of middle school readers (the majority, in my experience) don’t want this type of “edgy,” and aren’t interested in reading about teens who are thinking about college and jobs and long-term relationships. They relate to stories about first kisses and changing friendships and the awkwardness of puberty. (But don’t use the p-word outright, if you can help it. That’s gross.) Once they run into a sex scene, they put the book down. (Note that this generalization will not apply to all middle schoolers, and if it doesn’t apply in your community, you may not need a middle school collection.)
On the flip side, middle grade literature is most often written to appeal to fourth and fifth graders. These books usually take a simplistic view of relationships, have no strong language, and avoid certain “taboo” topics that middle schoolers often face such as mental illness, cyberbullying, and a growing awareness of one’s body and sexuality. Middle school, many people claim, is the most difficult and emotional time in growing up. Our patrons need books that help them navigate these tough times.
Books that speak directly to the middle school experience do exist, but they can be tough to locate. Currently, most libraries’ middle-school age patrons are split between the juvenile and young adult collections. If the patron is looking for a specific title, this is inconvenient (especially if the collections are on different floors), but can be navigated by looking up the title. However, it makes browsing almost impossible. There are few middle school-specific books being published, and we split them between two collections and mix them in with middle grade and young adult titles, of which there are many, many more. Even worse, upper middle grade and lower young adult titles are difficult for the untrained eye to distinguish from titles aimed at younger and older readers. What are the odds a middle school browser will stumble on something for which he or she is the target audience?
When you can’t figure out where to find books for your age group, it’s not only frustrating but can also leave you feeling lost as to where you belong at the library. Middle schoolers are going through a critical period of developing their own opinions and identities. If they cannot find books that speak to them, they may determine that books in general don’t speak to them.
(Of course, we should never make any readers feel that any books are off-limits or that they are being judged for reading mature content; a middle school collection is a guideline and a convenience, not an age restriction rule.)
Doing Our Research
Before you start, refresh your memory on some best practices for collection development and content curation, and for serving teen patrons in general. These are some great resources.
Choosing a Name
We were concerned that creating a middle school collection might cause middle schoolers to feel that they are stuck in that collection, or make younger and older patrons feel unwelcome there. We also did not want to inadvertently imply that middle school-age patrons are “supposed” to be reading at the level of the books in the collection. To counter this, we gave the collection the non-age-specific name the Middle Ground. Though technically it is a collection aimed at your average middle school reader, we try not to say that to patrons. Instead, we say it is a collection for readers in between Juvenile and Young Adult.
Obviously, patrons don’t change their reading tastes overnight when they enter middle or high school. There is a lot of overlap. So what do you do with a book that is best suited for, say, grades 4-7? Or grades 8-10? Because the Juvenile and Young Adult collections are both well-established and familiar to our patrons, we decided to make the Middle Ground a smaller, more targeted collection. Almost all the books there are aimed squarely at middle schoolers. It is expected that middle schoolers will also make frequent visits to the juvenile and/or YA collections to find books with a wider audience. Our Middle Ground Fiction is about one quarter the size of Juvenile Fiction; nonfiction and graphic novels have an even smaller ratio.
Input from Our Middle Schoolers
I began my tenure as Middle School Librarian with a survey asking middle schoolers about their programming and collection preferences. There were two simple questions related to collections: “What are your favorite genres?” and “What are some of your favorite books?”
It came as no surprise that the patrons displayed a wide array of interests. I learned that we needed a broad collection. Nonfiction and graphic novels were well-represented among the responses, so we decided to include these in the Middle Ground. We also uncovered some trends that helped us learn how to weight the collection. For example, sad realistic fiction, modern fantasy, and sports fiction are some favorites in my community.
Many questions remained. What formats should we include? What sort of content would be found in a “Middle Ground” book? What would be the Juvenile, Middle Ground, and Young Adult collection developers’ process to negotiate who collected what?
We’ll take a look at these questions next Monday.