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Connecting young adults and libraries in the 21st century.

Previous generations grew up when libraries possessed an information monopoly. Teens today have an abundance of choices. In order for them to choose libraries now, and when they become adults, libraries must rethink their goals, reprioritise their resources, reshape their buildings and re energise their services to allow teens and libraries to reach their potential. Paper presented at Learning futures conference, Adelaide SA 9-10 March 2007.


Over the past 20 years, I have presented on the topic of connecting young adults and libraries in all 50 of the United States. During these sessions I often tell people--in jest--that the way to avoid negative experiences with teenagers in school or public libraries is simply to lock the door.

Little did I know that in December 2006 a public library in New Jersey would not realize I was joking. While the decision was overturned, it was a scary day when the Maplewood Library Board's solution to the teen problem in the library was to lock the doors between 2.30 and 5.00pm Monday to Friday. No doubt there was a problem at that library, but I do not think it was just middle school students. The first mistake, therefore, is viewing teens as problems to solve, rather than customers to be served--which some studies indicate represent almost 25 per cent of public library users.

When I started training in the late 1980s, the question library staff asked most was 'how do we get teens into the library?' Now the question is more 'what do we do with all these teens in the libraries?' But there is another question--actually more of a complaint bubbling under the surface that combines the two 'how do we get all of these teens in the library to use the library as we want them to, rather than how they choose'. In other words, we think teen users are the problem.

One other thing, which has not changed through those 20 years, is that many people who want to proactively serve teens in their libraries still lament how there is 'not enough money, time, staff, shelving, space, and funding'. The answer to that remains the same--yes, there is, you are spending on something else. Teen advocates rather need to answer the question 'why should actively serving teens in libraries be a priority'.

The easier response is also perhaps the worst--because they are the future taxpayers and library users. Libraries are really serving teens out of self interest, not what is in the best interest of the teen. We do this in lots of micro ways, such as using teen volunteers. We are always thinking what teen volunteers can do for us, when we should be asking what we can do for them--what will be the outcome of their volunteer experience, not how many books did they shelve. Another example is a teen book discussion group. What if 50 teens show up? A success or a failure? For the library, it is a success because we get to make 50 hash marks for the monthly report. For the 45 teens who did not get a chance to participate, was the program a success? To use the 'tomorrow's taxpayer' line of thinking is the same. It views young people in libraries as a means, not an end. Moreover, the 'tomorrows taxpayer' fallacy is not really about serving young people--it is about self serving institutional drives. It is a public library--the needs of the people come first, our wants and preoccupations second.

Yet so often, especially in working with teens, we discount what that public wants from us because we know better. At the height of the Goosebumps / Fear Street craze, so many youth librarians were still wringing hands trying not to get them dirty by allowing such trash in their libraries. In doing so, they created something more horrifying that R L Stine could have imagined--libraries which told kids that what they wanted did not matter. That was then, this is now, so let us look at graphic novels. I am not a comic book reader, so I have no personal stake in this issue. However, I am professionally offended by the same ugly arguments dusted off to deny teens access to the good stuff. It is so much easier now than in better times to place the blame on shrinking collection dollars rather than the real issue--we just do not get it.

Libraries often view services to teens, including collecting graphic formats, as special and outside of their normal mission. What this demonstrates is a radical inconsistency towards changing formats to meet the changing needs of our users. One example--most public libraries purchase large print books. They do so primarily to meet the needs of one user segment, seniors. Seniors read large print because changes in their bodies cause eyesight to fail and thus the library responds with the large print format. A second example--most public libraries purchase board books. They do so primarily to meet the needs of two market segments, babies and toddlers. Babies and toddlers need board books because changes in their bodies cause them to want to hold books but they are without the developmental skills to not want to rip them up, and thus the library responds with the board book format. A third example--some public libraries purchase comic books and other graphic formats to meet the needs of teenagers, but many do not. Collecting comic books is not about doing anything special for teens, just doing the same as we do for other members of the public. It is about the public.

But what about this public? Look at the 21st century challenges we face: new technology, users not just new to libraries but new to speaking English, not enough staff or resources or space or political support--the normal litany of library laments. However, as the great poet Pete Townsend told us, meet the new boss, same as the old boss. This situation is not unfamiliar to libraries; it is ingrained in our roots.

So, let us look at those roots and get back to a core question 'what are we doing here on the most basic level?' For me, libraries are about making connections between people and information. It is what we have always done, and will always do. At one point we chained the books to the shelves. Now we unchain every possible information need through unlimited internet access. We believe the connection adds value to the life of the user.

At this conference, there is a goal we all share: that our work with teenagers in our libraries and in our lives will make a positive impact. We believe that reading, libraries, and lifelong learning can be positive forces in the lives of young people. As individuals, we share many different beliefs. We come to work with different political, social, spiritual, and religious beliefs. Our work with teenagers occurs because of various experiences, skills, and knowledge. But while we are different, we are all the same in the desired outcome we share: that young people grow up to become caring and competent adults. We have a common set of professional values that provides the road map to help guide young people on a successful path through adolescence. These core values are the elements of success for services to young adults in both schools and public libraries. They are, not surprisingly, also the values which are the elements of success in all youth programs because they focus on the positive, look beyond the four walls of the library, and demonstrate youth advocacy in action.

Developmental needs

Young adults use libraries in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons. Like any other group of users, such as genealogists or small business people, their needs are unique. Not special, but unique. To respect the unique needs of young adults means to understand those needs, to accept them, to accommodate them, and to provide services which help meet those needs. To respect those needs means that collections are responsive and reflect the diverse interests of young adults. It means that space is designed to accommodate teens, including a separate YA space. It means that technology is plentiful, accessible, and that teen use of it is valued. But primarily, respecting the unique needs of teenagers means to not disrespect those needs. To respect the unique needs of young adults is to value what they value. The value of chatting for many teens has the same value as that of adult users checking their stocks or the preschoolers playing cdroms. The value emerges not from the librarian's notions, but from the needs of the user.

The primary method, however, by which librarians can or cannot respect the unique needs of young adults is in the attitudes which underscore customer service. Librarians who respect the unique needs of teenagers will be approachable, nonjudgmental, and accepting. They will be encouraging, tolerant, patient, persistent, and emphatic. They will understand young adults--their psychology, their literature, and even their popular culture. They will advocate for intellectual freedom, for free access, and for solving problems to knock down barriers to youth access. They will have a sense of humour, involve youth, and be creative. When they are these things, they are respectful. When young adults are given respect, they will respond in kind.

Healthy youth development

Healthy youth development is a process of creating environments that support the social, emotional, spiritual, physical, moral, and cognitive development of young people. Positive youth development addresses the broader developmental needs of youth, in contrast to deficit based models which focus solely on youth problems. The essential concept of positive youth development is that a successful transition to adulthood requires more than avoiding drugs, violence, or precocious sexual activity. The promotion of a young person's social, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive development began to be seen as key to preventing problem behaviors themselves. If school and public libraries are to remain vital, vibrant, and valued into the 21st century, it is essential that we refine and perhaps even redefine their role as key players in the process of supporting healthy youth development. We do that by supporting healthy youth development. When we help youth in developing healthily and engaging in positive behaviors rather than negative ones; when we empower youth so they thrive rather than engage in risk taking action; when we believe in youth so they believe in themselves rather than become stuck in a cycle of despair; when we do all of these things, and so much more, we are supporting healthy youth development. Circulating books, answering reference questions, teaching information literacy, developing programs, forming youth advisory groups, promoting reading through booktalking, and every other positive action we take supports healthy youth development. These things are not ends, they are means.

Developmental assets

Libraries do not serve youth because it is good for the library, but because it is good for young adults. What is good for young adults, it follows, is good for the community. That is the assumption. The Search Institute, in Minneapolis Minnesota, has transformed this notion into a vision that healthy communities are built through healthy youth. This vision is based on extensive research on youth which has produced the developmental assets framework. The 40 development assets are the factors which are critical to a young person's successful growth and development. These assets are positive experiences, opportunities, and personal qualities that all youth need in order to become responsible, successful, and caring adults. They are the critical factors for young people's growth and development. When gathered together, they offer a set of benchmarks for positive youth development. The main research finding is that the more assets young people experience, the less likely they are to engage in a wide range of risky behaviors and the more likely they are to engage in positive behaviors. Relationships are the key to asset building. Forming relationships with teens, and with teachers and others about teens, helps pull youth away from the margins. The library at the centre of the school or community is an equally strong selling point. Assets give us a way back to the centre, when, given home computers, internet cafes, superbookstores, and school computer labs, many libraries are finding themselves headed toward the edges. But what we offer that none of those other places can, is quality customer service. What we offer is not so much bricks or clicks, but expertise. Libraries are not really in the information business or the book business, but the people business. The essential role of any library serving any user is about connecting people and information. Thus, it is about relationships.

Youth advocacy

Youth advocacy is almost deeper than a core value. Youth advocacy is to services to young adults what water is to fish and oxygen is to humans. It is the very essence of what we do. Dorothy Broderick, the founder of Voice of youth advocates magazine, defined a youth advocate as 'a person who believes in creating the conditions under which young people can make decisions about their own lives'. Youth advocacy means believing in youth to be treated as first class citizens in the library world, not poor cousins and not marginalized. Youth advocacy means believing that services for teens are a right, a given, and an indispensable part of the very business of every library, not an after thought or a special program. Youth advocacy means believing that every young person who walks through the door of a library deserves respect, attention, and our best efforts. Youth advocacy means being a voice with and for youth at all levels of a library organisation, from ensuring that circulation systems can measure teen use to selecting appropriate furniture, to providing information literacy instruction to programs which increase student learning and achievement. Youth advocacy means believing in youth.

Youth advocacy means believing in the best of youth, not falling for media stereotypes. It means engaging youth, rather than ignoring or judging them. Youth advocacy means providing youth with a voice, either directly through youth involvement or indirectly by standing up for the rights of youth. Youth advocacy means recognising that adolescence is a time of passage and that is the role of adults, especially those working in institutions like libraries, to do everything possible to ensure the trip is successful. That belief is the foundation of our values, our attitudes, and our actions. Ultimately, youth advocacy means finding, celebrating, and sharing the value of young adults in libraries.

Youth participation

Youth involvement is a broad term that casts a wide net and is the cornerstone value of a new way of thinking about library services to young adults. It involves any project, program, and practice which allows teens a chance to be more than customers. Youth involvement encompasses practices such as teen volunteer programs, teen book selection groups, as well as teen advisory groups. Youth involvement is about relationship building between librarians and teenagers through many different vehicles. While surveys, polls, and comment cards represent one type of youth involvement, simply asking teens 'what do you think about this?' is just as important. Youth involvement is an action, but mostly it is attitude. For a young adult, youth involvement provides a wide variety of benefits. Regardless of the task at hand, youth involvement validates the importance of youth's contribution. For the young person, youth involvement can help them gain or develop a sense of responsibility, self esteem, and meaningful participation. They gain skills, they gain knowledge, and develop personal traits which will help them succeed. They develop a sense of being part of something larger: youth involvement is citizen participation in action, making a difference at the local level. Youth involvement allows young people to interact with peers, as well adult role models. It allows them to constructively use their time, to channel their energy into a positive project, and to contribute. For all these reasons, youth involvement is a cornerstone value of services to young adults because the outcome of youth involvement directly meets the developmental needs of teenagers, while at the same time meeting the needs of librarians to provide the best services possible. It moves libraries beyond building collections or answering reference questions to making a real difference in the lives of young people by allowing them opportunities to build themselves. The web 2.0 movement is a reaction to youth wanting not to passively consume media, but actively create and interact. The social networking, the media creation, and the use of technology for communication are in effect youth participation opportunities. If libraries want to remain relevant, they must really adopt the philosophy of web 2.0, not just through a myspace page.


We believe in collaboration and cooperation for many reasons, but mostly because it works. Outside of the world of libraries, collaboration is seen as one of the elements of success of developing youth programs. When libraries join such efforts, the safety net for teens grows larger. Collaboration is about sharing information, sharing resources, and sharing successes. It is through collaboration that individuals, agencies, and institutions with different methods, means, and motives can come together for the common goal of creating healthy youth. In the public library setting, collaboration with youth serving agencies, businesses, the faith community, government bodies, cultural institutions, and educational bodies that serve teens increase the strength of each group's program and tightens the safety net for teens in the community. Collaboration, in addition to the positive outcomes it can bring to young adults, provides the library with an opportunity to expand its base, trumpet its message, and secure supporters in the community. Collaboration is often one of the keys to grant funding, to improved visibility of the library and youth issues in the community, and another method by which the public library integrates itself into the larger human services network. It is where we can share what we bring to the table in promoting positive youth development. Collaboration is only a means to an end. The end is to have students using all types of libraries with a high degree of satisfaction and success, and a low amount of frustration and failure. In addition, the outcome of improved collaboration for students includes increased access to information, the ability to obtain materials easily, a library staff with a better understanding of their needs, reduced stress and time spent using libraries, increased access to recreational reading, increased access to information technology, and a higher level of information literacy.

Information literacy

Collaboration between teacher librarians and teachers is the foundation of successful information literacy instruction. Working with teachers and curriculum departments, teacher librarians can plan for learning environments supportive of curriculum integration and design, then implement a variety of instructional strategies and experiences that engage each student in successful learning. Through collaboration, teacher librarians can ensure that information literacy is not merely part of the curriculum but instead as integrated as other basic skills, in every classroom. Collaboration leads to planning of assignments between teachers and libraries, leads to evaluation of those assignments, and places the teacher librarian at the forefront as a teacher. But more than that, the collaboration between teachers and librarians results in positive outcomes for the student. Students are engaging in reading, writing, speaking, viewing, and listening for enjoyment, enrichment and understanding. By placing a value on collaboration, teacher librarians are increasing the value of the library experience for students. Information literacy is the foundation of the central teen drive--to be independent. By providing youth with instruction on how to become information literate they can become empowered to recognise their need for, find, evaluate, and use information not only for their schooling, but also within every aspect of their lives.

Adolescent literacy

Everyone recognises how important it is for children to learn to read by grade three, but the literacy needs of adolescents are far different than those of primary school children. Reading development is a continuum, yet the emphasis on literacy decreases after elementary school. A young adult's ability to use most of the resources available at their school or public library depends upon their ability to read. While it is not the role of a library to teach reading, the issue of adolescent literacy is one which anyone working with teens needs to have on their radar screens. Young adult readers are all over the map. Some enjoy reading picture books, while others are willing to tackle James Joyce as a Spring break project. Some read a book a night, others read only when forced, and sometimes not even then. But what all teen readers have in common is they are developing a relationship with reading. The essential role of the young adult librarian is to nurture that relationship. We learn about teen reading and contribute to improving adolescent literacy when we show respect for the reading choices of young people. We complement, we do not condemn. If a young adult is at the level of reading comic books, we provide access to comic books and we provide access to graphic novels, but we should not disrespect reading at the level. To say or to manifest the attitude of 'at least they are reading something' is to show disrespect for what the teen, for whatever reason, has chosen to read. We learn about teen reading and contribute to improving adolescent literacy when we provide access to a wide range of materials for them to choose from and ensure that policies do not deny them access. When teens are, or become, readers, their chances of succeeding in school increase. But just as important, reading for pleasure is a major asset that shows a young adult's commitment to learning. The relationships we build with young adults to help them commit to learning demonstrate not just our values in action, but demonstrate the value we see in young people.

Student learning and achievement

One outcome of positive youth development is success in school. Increasing student learning and achievement is an important goal of public libraries and an essential one for the junior high or high school library. Student learning encompasses the broad process of learning, whereas student achievement is often closely linked with success on standardized tests. Within the educational community there is debate as to which of these is more important but, to most students, both are important. Few students enjoy failing any test and most students, despite numerous obstacles, do want to learn. As schools focus on student learning and achievement, libraries serving teens must look at the role they can play. In school libraries, the value of a strong program is well documented in a variety of studies. Students at schools with better funded libraries tend to achieve higher average reading scores, whether their schools and communities are rich or poor and whether adults in their community are well or poorly educated. Given a relationship between library expenditures and test performance, what intervening characteristics of library programs help to explain this relationship? The size of the library's total staff and the size and variety of its collection are important characteristics of programs that intervene between library expenditures and test performance. Funding is important precisely because its specific purpose is to ensure adequate levels of staffing in relation to the school's enrolment, and a local collection that offers students a large number of materials in a variety of formats.

Equal access

The unique nature of young adults, no longer children yet not adults, is the central contradiction which emerges in the debate over equal access. When is a person considered an adult? The debate rages, in particular in the juvenile justice system. It depends on what state or country that person lives in, the political climate of the legislature, and what the young person wants to do--or is to be punished for doing. In the US, 16 year olds can drive in most states. They are given the legal authority to operate a dangerous piece of machinery, yet in many libraries that same person might be still considered a child and denied access to the internet, to dvds, and to other collections or services. It is about teens having the same access to information as adults. Is some of the material that teens would access harmful? Of course it is. But is it more harmful to deny access to information they want and need? Again, of course it is. The importance of youth advocacy is especially evident when the library, through its policies and procedures, provides equal access to resources. Access begins in selection--libraries must purchase and promote materials that teenagers require to satisfy their varied needs. In particular, information about sexuality is not only of interest to teenagers for obvious reasons related to physical development. It is also necessary, even life saving, information. Rather than protecting young adults from information, which is something few teens would want or need, librarians must offer the resources and guidance to help adolescents make the transition to becoming adults.

If these ten core values are the building blocks, then where and who are the carpenters? In most libraries in Australia and New Zealand, I assume that services to teenagers are more often that not reactive and delivered by non young adult librarians, rather than proactive and planned, developed, implemented and evaluated by someone whose job description actually reads 'YA librarian'. But in the US, that might be changing. Services to teens have exploded in the past ten years. Just a few examples are the start of Teen Read Week, Teen Tech Week, and the creation of the Printz Award for best young adult book by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), as well as projects such as the Urban Libraries Council's public libraries as partners in youth development. Few large urban libraries in the US dare now open without a large teen zone, or not feature teen services front and centre. Yet to be cliched, it is not about bricks or bytes, but about building bridges between what teens want and needs, with what libraries can provide. Libraries, to remain relevant to teens must reflect read young adult needs, be planned in cooperation and consultation with teens, and always focus on the bottom line--healthy youth development.

We measure circulation of young adult books, but what really matters most is the outcomes we create in young adult lives. The question is no longer only asking what does a young adult find in a school or public library when they enter it, but also asking what happens to that young adult as a result of checking out a book, attending a book discussion program, spending time as a student assistant, or learning how to locate information on the internet. By placing services in this broader context, administrators and other purse string holders can begin to realize the true value of serving young adults in libraries. Young adult librarians do not just develop collections; they help in the vital process of developing young people to become competent, caring adults. Libraries do not, should not, and cannot, develop services for young adults because it is good for the library, but rather because these services will make an affirmative impact leading to positive outcomes for teens. Libraries are in the youth development business working to develop the positive assets in the lives of teenagers.

But how does playing a computer game or reading a graphic novel contribute to lifelong learning? 'That is not learning, that is playing.' Wrong--the young adult doing these things in a school or public library is learning something else, something more important--the value of libraries. They should be learning that libraries are an important part of any school and in every community. Strong communities tend to have strong schools and libraries.

We know this. We know that young people with assets are more likely to contribute to, rather than take from, society. We know the cost to the community of kids without assets in social services, corrections, and other institutions. We know that libraries can and do build assets. Libraries thus build communities. Assets create positive outcomes and positive outcomes create stronger communities. We serve teens because libraries build community.

Connecting young adults and libraries is not about treating teens as special, but it is about serving them uniquely just as services to other market segments of the public library do--toddlers, genealogy, seniors, college students, and small business people. Each group of users has different demands upon libraries due to different needs based on what they are trying to accomplish. About all else, teens are trying to accomplish one thing: form an identity.

If we believe that libraries are good things for a community, then does it not follow that we want teens, as they are forming this identity, to recognise this value? If we believe libraries have value, then we will want teens to learn that by our deeds and action. If we believe that our work has value, then we need to know that it matters. If we believe that libraries should be supported by the community, then we need to show and prove to the community that matters. Communities allocate resources based on what they value.

We have moved from input, to output, and now to outcome. The stimuli are varied, but an overriding motive is to prove our value so the public will continue to fund libraries. We have tried to prove that for years with outputs--here is how many people are using our library, here is how many books were checked out etc. Three problems, of course, emerge from clinging to this as the primary approach. Continuing to invest in circulation as a measure is buying a commodity that is sure to decline as we move more resources into electronic format in the endeavour to keep with teens' mad rush to google everything. We are no longer the only game in town. Funders, and even our beloved public, may wonder why we need school and public libraries--just give kids the internet. Finally, given competing demands, the public wants to see what affect we really have. They are wondering if we do make kids lives better.

So, we are poised to make a choice. We can lock the doors and shut out a generation of library users, or we can unlock the creativity, excitement, energy, and passion of both these teen users and the librarians that serve them. For a long time, the American Library Association used the slogan Libraries change lives. The fact is, too many libraries still are characterised by ugly carpet, poor lighting, jammed printers, and books few people will ever read. What really changes lives are the people who work in libraries--people like you.

Patrick Jones Consultant USA

Patrick Jones is a YA Librarian with a library science degree from the University of Michigan, which he gained in 1984. He is a passionate advocate for young people reading, and has presented across the world on engaging them with reading and libraries. Patrick has received numerous awards for his services in this area and is the author of two YA novels (Things change Walker & Co 2004; Nailed Walker/Bloomsbury 2006), the first of which was named by the Young Adult Library Services Association as a best book for reluctant readers. The latest of his professional publications is Connecting with reluctant readers (Neal-Schuman 2006). Patrick grew up in Flint, Michigan and now lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Email website
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Author:Jones, Patrick
Publication:Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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