Connecting Young Adults and Libraries in the 21st Century

By Jones, Patrick | Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Connecting Young Adults and Libraries in the 21st Century


Jones, Patrick, Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services


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.

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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. …

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