Last Monday, I talked about the benefits of a middle school collection in a public library, and how we chose a name, chose a collection size, and gathered feedback for my Library’s new Middle Ground. Our next steps were to get into the specifics of what exactly belonged in the Middle Ground versus the Juvenile and Young Adult Collections.
As I said in my last post, the way you structure and build your collection is going to depend on your community. I’m providing an account of how I did it as an example, to give you some things to think about while creating your own collection. For more guidance, check out YALSA’s Collections and Content Curation wiki page.
We learned through surveying that many of our middle school patrons were interested in nonfiction and graphic novels. Nonfiction and graphic titles tend to appeal to a wider age range of readers than fiction. In Middle Ground Fiction we were collecting books that spoke directly to middle schoolers, but such books are few in nonfiction and graphic novels. We wanted to include these collections in the Middle Ground, but chose to tweak the rules a bit for them.
We felt it would be somewhat arbitrary to try to separate our nonfiction research materials into Juvenile and Middle Ground collections, since there are so many titles that work just as well for upper elementary as for middle school readers. We chose to keep our Juvenile Nonfiction serving birth to grade 8. However, we wanted to encourage middle schoolers’ interest in nonfiction, so we created Middle Ground Nonfiction as a small high-interest browsing collection. Some of the things included are books on sports, fashion, self-help, study materials, video games, DIY projects, biographies of high-interest people, and nonfiction titles read for classes at the local middle schools.
Middle Ground Graphic Novels mostly contains titles that are either based on media properties very popular with middle schoolers, or are a little too mature for Juvenile Graphic Novels but are of high interest to middle schoolers. The latter category includes a lot of manga, which is popular with our middle school patrons but is often a little too mature for Juvenile Graphic Novels.
We knew from circulation statistics that many of the titles we were moving to the Middle Ground from either Juvenile or YA were also circulating well in CD and Playaway formats. To be consistent and to create easier browsing for audiobook users, we created Middle Ground Book on CD and Playaway collections. The titles in these collections mirror the ones in the Middle Ground Fiction and Nonfiction collections.
Our Young Adult collection is physically far away from the Middle Ground, so for extremely popular titles that have high appeal to both middle and high school readers, we sometimes buy a few copies for both collections for convenience’s sake. I also occasionally buy duplicates of YA titles that I recommend often in readers’ advisory for the Middle Ground so I have them on hand to recommend.
The Middle Ground is located right next to the Juvenile Fiction collection, so we avoid duplication between these two collections. The same goes for graphic novels and audiobooks. Middle Ground Nonfiction and Juvenile Nonfiction occasionally duplicate titles, when a book is both high-interest and of high value for research.
Middle Ground Content
The trickiest part of all this is deciding what titles belong there. First, you will need to determine some prevailing trends in your community. What is the reading level of the average middle schooler? What is their average emotional maturity? Their interests? What do they and their parents feel is a comfortable maturity level for content being advertised as good choices for this age group? You can get a sense of this through talking to patrons, observing circulation trends, and surveying.
Once we’d gathered this data, I drafted some guidelines for what content goes in what collection. The Juvenile collection developers and Young Adult collection developer weighed in, and we made sure we were all comfortable with the guidelines. They are just guidelines, not a policy, because we want to be able to bend the rules if necessary.
My community is fairly conservative. We wanted to provide opportunities for our middle school readers to be challenged and think about tough topics, but we also wanted the average reader and parent to feel that they can take any book off the shelf and be reasonably confident they won’t start reading and discover that it is “too mature” for them. (Obviously, you cannot please everyone on this front, nor should you try to. Also, the Library must represent all lifestyles and viewpoints even though some may find them “inappropriate.” Mature content is not the same as controversial content.) Another benefit of this is that parents no longer need to worry about their third or fourth grader stumbling on middle school-maturity content in the Juvenile collection.
Our guidelines are too specific for me to share them all here, but here are some common traits of books that we place in the Middle Ground:
-Protagonists ages 12-15
-Reading level appropriate for grades 6-8 (we also have some middle school-interest hi-lo books)
-May include characters dealing with first crushes, first relationships, and first times engaging in kissing and other mild physical contact
-May include mild or infrequent swearing
-May include discussions of puberty and a new awareness of self, often including growing insecurity
-May include more intense types of bullying than that found in the Juvenile collection, including online bullying
-May include violence, horror, and disturbing events, but not described in much detail
In my library, the following content almost always bumps a book to the Young Adult collection:
-Characters ages 17 and up (books published more than ten years ago are often exceptions)
-Characters in a serious and established relationship
-Sex, including “off-screen” sex, and other intense physical contact
-Use of strong swear words like the f-word, or frequent use of milder swear words
-Drinking, smoking, and drug use, except when used in a discussion about addiction, or about negative consequences for middle school-age drug users
-Graphic violence or intense disturbing content
The parameters in our guidelines work great—if we know what’s actually in the book. We can’t read every book, and are often purchasing with only a few professional reviews and blog posts to work with.
In my library, we’ve found that School Library Journal tends to give age ratings consistent with our Middle Ground content guidelines, so if they review it, we start there. If School Library Journal rates a book for somewhere in the range of grades 5-10, we put it in Middle Ground unless we find some other evidence that we shouldn’t. We use other journals to supplement that information. Reviews will often include descriptions and key words that provide evidence as to whether a journal’s age ratings of a particular book match up with our Library’s guidelines; for example, light, young, tween, mature, edgy, intense. You will need to determine which review sources are most in line with your own guidelines.
Still, you will make mistakes. There have been instances when I read a book from the Middle Ground and, instead of returning it when I was done, checked it out straight to Technical Services to be recataloged as Young Adult. Be prepared to swap with other collections when necessary.
The single most important thing for all of this to work is communication. A middle school collection overlaps with both youth and young adult, so you will need to have clear guidelines and a system that works for you so that the collection developers for all these collections are thinking on the same wavelength. When you are unsure where a title should go, start a conversation about it. If you disagree, practice give-and-take.
This may sound like a lot of work. It is—at first. Once the collection is established, it’s easy to manage. In my community, the benefit has made it more than worth the effort. There has been a great deal of positive feedback from middle schoolers and parents. A 7th grade girl told me, “I like it because it has a wide variety of choices. It’s more targeted toward us, not small children. And we can relate [to the books].” We can’t change the publishing industry and its problems serving middle school readers, but we can help patrons navigate the literary gap between childhood and the teenage years, leading them to books that will be their friends and guides through a tumultuous period in growing up.