Is There an Expiration Date in Teen Services?

January 7, 2014

by Flickr user Mark Turnauckas

by Flickr user Mark Turnauckas

A few things I’ve seen out in the YA library world and my own experiences at work in the last month or so have me thinking about the ebbs and flows of working with teens.

Last month, someone sent a message to ya-yaac with the following observation:

I’ve realized that one of the more interesting parts of working with the teen group is that ever 4-ish years you have a whole new crew of kids. On the plus side, it keeps things fresh. On the minus side, I feel like I’m having to relearn my job over and over again. My latest “what the heck am I doing” problem is keeping in contact with the teens. Here is what I’ve got going on:

She then went on to explain that she used to communicate with her teens on Facebook, and then they moved to Twitter and she did too, and now they’re on Tumblr but don’t want to follow the library, so she’s at a loss. The “how do you reach your teens” part of the question is a common one, but her remark about having to learn her job every few years really resonated with me.

Back in fall of 2012, a librarian whom I like and respect very much, Faythe Arredondo, shared her teen-planned summer reading program for the YALSAblog. What she and her teens built was really remarkable: the program was a summer-long murder mystery that her teens planned, wrote, recorded video clues for, and created art for (with coordination from Faythe, of course!). That’s the kind of teen involvement I feel like I can only dream of in my current library (there’s still a lot of community building and skill building that needs to happen first), and I’m so impressed with her. But then last week, she tweeted

It’s weird how you can work hard on your own and with your teens to build something, and then the next year they’ve moved on or lost interest or found something else to do and suddenly you’ve lost all that momentum.

I don’t like that sort of instability, though I recognize it’s probably just an unavoidable part of working with teens: they can be mercurial in their interests anyway, and you only have them for a few years before they age out of your department and become adults. But I want to be able to feel like my department and what we offer our kids is growing steadily from year to year. In my limited experience at just two libraries, it feels like both children’s and adult services have that steady growth, but maybe that’s just been my particular circumstances (building teen services from scratch in an established library and trying to rebuild a teen program in a big showcase branch after the teen department was leaderless for months).

I’m seeing this growth followed by decline in my own library right now: our program attendance numbers grew over the spring and summer but have been dropping slowly but steadily since the school year started (although they’re still up from this time last year!). It largely seems to be because our regular kids are bored with what we offer, and we’re not getting enough new kids in to counteract that. They also responded really positively to our rewards points system (which was conceived by one of my staff members but is similar to Drea Sowers’s minion points system) when we introduced it in October, but interest in it is fizzling now, too.

Obviously there are a number of things my staff and I can do to refresh things: we could do a bunch of outreach to bring in new kids, find ways to jazz up our current offerings, or start sunsetting old programs and replacing them with new ones. And I certainly don’t want to offer the same thing month after month, year after year without shifting to reflect our teens’ interests and the changing world around them! But will I ever feel like I’m building new things on an already solid foundation, or will I always feel like I’m digging up old structures to make room for new ones, never actually increasing the size of what’s standing?

I worry a lot, so maybe ups and downs like this are totally, completely normal and I just need to learn to deal. But there’s pressure from administration for things to grow constantly with no decreases, and even without that external expectation and pressure, I want to feel like I’m building something and like I’m learning from my mistakes and growing in wisdom and capability. I don’t ever want to get to a point where my work is totally routine and I’m not learning anything new, but I do want to feel like I’m not always trying to figure things out for the first time at some point.

For those of you who have been in your positions for a while, do you feel like you’re always rebuilding every few years, or does it feel like there’s been momentum over time? What does a teen services department even look like in the long term (like, decade to decade)? If ebbs and flows are normal, how do you deal with pressure from above to constantly be turning up bigger and bigger numbers? And if you do feel like there’s growth from year to year, how long did it take to feel that way?

It’s been a really long time since I’ve blogged regularly and my writing and thought organizing are pretty rusty. Apologies if this feels repetitive or weirdly structured. Bear with me while I redevelop my ability to think and write!

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