What I Wish I’d Known About Building Teen Services From Scratch

In brief: During my first professional position I found myself building a teen services program from scratch at a public library in a small town. In this article, I reflect on some of what I learned through that experience, including the value of data, the importance of having a vision, how much relationships matter, and the value of professional community. I conclude with a call for dialogue among other builders of teen services to share our experiences and lessons.

A photograph of teens from the shoulders down, gathered around a table covered in plates and bowls of candy and junk food, as they try to win a Teen Iron Chef competition

Teen Iron Chef Competition – photo by Gretchen Kolderup


When I finished library school (where I’d focused on teen services), I was expecting to work in a birth-through-eighteen youth services department and was hoping I’d be able to specialize in teen services while working alongside and learning from my other youth-serving colleagues. After all, there weren’t too many librarians I knew who did just teen services. Instead, I was hired as the first Teen Services Librarian at a library in Connecticut and found myself building a teen program nearly from scratch — all while working part-time (first 19 hours a week, then 21, then 28, with more hours each fiscal year). It was my first professional job, and I was building myself as a librarian as much as I was building the YA program at the library; I learned a lot about the real world of library work, about myself, and about the value of professional community.

I’ve written a few posts for the YALSAblog about my experiences [1] [2], but I’d like to dig a little deeper and explore some ideas more thoroughly here. This isn’t going to be a practical how-to guide for others who are building YA services from scratch; for that, I’d recommend Sarah Ludwig’s excellent, encouraging Starting from Scratch: Building a Teen Library Program. This article is, instead, a collection of personal reflections on four things — the value of data, the importance of having a vision, how much relationships matter, and the value of professional community — that I wish I’d appreciated when I was beginning to build teen services from scratch.

I wish I’d known the value of data

Oftentimes I think the data we gather and report to our administration feels like a chore, but especially since I was building a program from scratch and only had 19 or 21 or 28 hours to do everything from selection and weeding to programming to outreach, I wanted to know what was working and what wasn’t, and numbers were one good way to assess that.

I was lucky enough to have taken a course in library school on how to evaluate library services using different kinds of data gathering methods and different kinds of analyses. It was one of the least popular classes (perhaps because librarians are, by and large, more word people than number people), but I’d done my bachelor’s degree in math and I enjoyed it and learned a lot. I didn’t realize, though, how useful the things I learned in that class would be — it was one of the most valuable courses I took.

Because I was the first librarian of my kind at this library, I didn’t always have data from before I started. Circulation data that predated me were easy to get, but there were only a handful of teen-focused programs held before I arrived, so it was important to choose my metrics and start establishing baseline data as early as possible.

My supervisor was the head of collection management, so I was able to watch closely how the YA collections were performing. Every month, I tracked circulation for YA fiction, nonfiction, audiobooks, graphic novels, and periodicals, and calculated what percentage of the entire library’s circulation was YA materials. I compared that percentage to other months that year and the same month in previous years. I tracked the turnover rates for our general YA fiction collection versus the recently purchased (and differently shelved and displayed) YA fiction. I carefully recorded and graphed everything and could thus prove that what I was doing was working. For example:

  • YA fiction circulation as a percentage of all circulation had been falling in the three years before I was hired, but after I began working, that trend reversed itself.
  • Even though print circulation across the library was falling, circulation of YA print materials was increasing.
  • After creating the new YA fiction section and shelving more items face-out, circulation increased.
  • When I suggested moving the YA audiobooks from the teen section to instead be shelved next to the adult audiobooks, circulation increased.
  • After introducing a teen summer reading program, circulation of YA materials increased drastically in the summer months.

Because I had data that showed that what I was doing with the YA collection was working, I could prove that having a YA librarian was good for the library (increased circulation stats were something the director could include in her reports to the board and the community) and good for teens.

But while I had a relatively easy time improving circulation of materials, successful programming proved to be more complicated. Part of this, I think, was because programs for teens were totally new to my library, whereas books for teens were not. Teens thought about books when they thought about the library, so getting them to check out more or getting more teens to visit to borrow materials wasn’t hard. However, because teens didn’t think about events when they thought about the library, building a consistent program audience was more challenging.

For each program I held, I counted attendance, which is pretty standard, but then every month I’d analyze it. How had average program attendance changed from the month before (or the year before, once I’d been at the job long enough)? Which programs were attracting more teens (or fewer)? How was attendance at our book club versus the Teen Advisory Board trending over time? In the last year, what was the average attendance — but what was the standard deviation, too? (That is, was a particular monthly program attracting a consistent number of kids, or were there some months where we had a lot of attendees and some where we had few or zero?)

These data were really useful in deciding which programs were worth the time it took to plan and run them and which weren’t — or which ones needed extra publicity or promotion through outreach. For example, I had no problem ending movie nights when no one was coming, but I refused to let our book club die and was going to try everything I knew to do to increase attendance. (Even though libraries are certainly more than books, it’s one thing our community expects from us that other organizations likely don’t offer.)

Before I started at this library, there was a summer reading club for children and one for adults, but not one for teens. Summer reading programs are paramount in the youth services world, so I designed a program based on the one at the library where I’d done a summer internship during library school and made sure to collect a lot of data along the way via reading logs and at the end with a survey to kids who participated.

Once the summer reading club was over, I put together a report — in part for my director but mostly for myself — that analyzed how the club had done. Since it was the first year, I didn’t have previous data to compare it to, but I was able to analyze who participated in the program, how they’d heard about the club, how the number of registrations and reading log entries rose and fell through the summer, what prize levels participants reached, what formats they chose for their reading, and which authors were popular.

Because I knew in detail how the club had played out and what kids thought about it, I was able to make changes for the next year that saw a major increase in the number of kids who registered and increased participants’ reported enjoyment of the program. I was also able to use the data they generated about what and how they read to shape my collection development efforts. It took work to collect and analyze the data, but both my patrons and I were much more satisfied with the summer reading club in its second year, and, had I stayed at that library, I’m sure the third year would have been even better.

I also collected data on how many questions I answered when I was at the newly-created YA service desk, what kinds of questions those were, and how many questions per hour I was answering (since I didn’t always spend the same number of hours at the desk in a given week). I didn’t know ahead of time what the data would show, but gathering as much data as possible helped me make connections I might not have otherwise. For example, the way desk transactions correlated with program and circulation data was interesting: most of my reference desk transactions were performing readers’ advisory or helping patrons locate books, and a rise in reference transactions per hour matched closely with increases in circulation from month to month. Had most of my questions been homework help, I would have expected my transactions per hour to peak around the beginning and end of the school semesters rather than during the summer as it did. The data told a story, and being able to track and compare data helped me better understand what my patrons expected from the library.

The metrics you choose really do matter. My director wanted to know the number of reference transactions performed at the YA desk every month for her own reports, but I was much more interested in the number of transactions per hour since the number of hours I spent at the YA desk changed from month to month. (I was the only one who ever staffed the YA desk, so if I took a week-long vacation, that’d be a week that no questions were answered, and a 25% drop in the number of transactions wouldn’t be unexpected — but also wouldn’t be very helpful in knowing how I’d served my patrons that month.)

Sometimes statistics are for directors or for reports to the state library, but statistics can also be an irreplaceable way to know how you’re doing, what’s getting better, and what needs either more attention, restructuring, or to be phased out. It takes work to collect the data, but what it tells you about your patrons and services is invaluable.

Of course, numbers aren’t the whole story. Especially in teen services, a lot of what we do is focused on helping kids develop into happy, healthy adults and lifelong learners and readers, which can be tough to measure numerically without large-scale longitudinal studies of both library users and nonusers. We measure some of our impact in how many teens we reach through programs or through lending materials, but we measure a lot of our impact in how we change lives in large and small ways. In addition to my spreadsheets of statistics, I also kept a text file of what I called “good library moments” — things like when a mother told me her son hadn’t been much of a reader but was now totally hooked on our summer reading club or when a teen told me she loved the manga club because she felt like she was around people who understood her and that she could be herself in a way she couldn’t at school. I’d look through that list on bad days to help me remember why I was in this profession, but I’d also use those anecdotes (with identifying information removed) in the monthly reports I sent to my director alongside statistics. Statistics help us know how we’re doing with our work, but personal stories of the impact we have on kids’ lives help us remember why we do that work in the first place.

I wish I’d known how important it is to have a vision

All of the data collection and tinkering with services I was doing would have been scattershot if I hadn’t had an idea of where where I was and where I wanted to be (or could be). I wouldn’t have believed you as a library school student, but after my experience with building teen services from scratch, I believe that developing a vision for your department is one of the most important things you can do. This was something we touched on a little bit in my library management class, but we didn’t spend a lot of time on it and it all felt very silly and corporate.

After I’d been at my library for about five months, our director wanted to put together a vision statement and strategic plan for the library with input from each department head. I was nervous about the prospect: I had less than half a year of hands-on experience, and I was still introducing so many new things for teens that it was hard to know how those efforts would be doing in a few months, much less a year or five years. But through the process of coming up with a vision statement for my department, I really had to think about why we were doing what we were doing, what I wanted to provide to my patrons, and how what my department did fit in with the rest of the library.

The town where I worked has a teen center, and I spent a lot of time trying to decide what differentiated the library from the teen center. Obviously the library is more media-focused (we devote a lot of our building and budget to books, music, and DVDs in a way that the teen center doesn’t, and they do more teen programming than we do), but if we were going to be offering teen programs like video game tournaments or Teen Iron Chef competitions, what made us and the teen center different? Was it possible for me to do those things and still maintain the library perspective?

I’m still not sure I have a great answer for that (other than the library being more focused on lifelong learning), but having to write a vision statement and look to the future of my department forced me to clarify and articulate the library’s values when it comes to teen services. This was good for me because as I was planning new projects and programs and outreach, I was grounding them in what I had decided was important.

Working on a vision statement was also immeasurably useful in being an advocate for my department and my teens. Once I had a vision statement and had identified my department’s five core values, I could take that vision with me to talk to administration, to parents, to schools, and to the community at large. It was easy to explain why a program was appropriate for the library and why it was good for kids. It was easy to explain why the teen perspective mattered in the library as a whole and how what I was doing supported the library’s mission statement. It was easy to talk about why the library was a natural partner with different organizations. It was easy to explain why we wanted funding for new projects. I knew why I was doing what I was doing and how everything I was doing connected to everything else, and that gave my outreach and advocacy efforts such clarity.

Now that I’m working in a more established program, I’m not sure I feel as compelled to create such a detailed vision for teen services, but I do want to have a direction, good justification for why I’m doing what I’m doing, and a sense for how everything we do for teens connects. Creating a vision or a mission statement, regardless of the final product at the end, is a good thought exercise that has helped me be more reflective about my work.

I wish I’d known how much relationships matter

This might be a function of working in a small town, but while trying to build something new at the library, I was continually reminded how much relationships — between me and my teen patrons, between my department and others in the library, between the library and the schools, and between the library and the community — mattered. This definitely wasn’t something we touched on in library school; my youth services classes were all about programming or youth development or books for young people. We didn’t talk a lot about community building or how to raise awareness of what the library does for teens.

But relationship-building affects all other aspects of library services to teens. The first month or so of programming that I did was a disaster: no one came to anything, because no one knew anything was happening, or if they did know, they had no reason to come and none of their friends were going anyway. It wasn’t until I got to know our regular library teens and could convince them to come to programs and bring their friends (and had learned what programs they were actually interested in) that my attendance numbers were non-zero. Knowing kids in the community personally and then using their relationships with their friends was key to getting my programs off the ground.

Trying to get the word out about anything I did was also hard because while the library had established channels for reaching adults — via an e-newsletter, our website, press releases in the paper, and announcements via other community groups, for example — we didn’t have a way to get the word out to teens. I put up posters in the teen area and around town, but it wasn’t until I developed relationships with the schools, the PTA, and other groups in town and could ask them to tell their students or members about what we were doing that I started to see kids I didn’t already know come to my programs. Building relationships with other community groups gave me the opportunity to use their PR outlets to promote my programs.

And finally, while I could do programs or buy materials for teens who were already using the library, it was by forming partnerships with other organizations that we were able to do something special. I worked with the teen center to get books into their rec room, reaching kids we would never see at the library. I worked with a local private psychiatric facility and drug treatment center to get books to the kids living there, and when I left, we’d been talking about doing a book discussion with them or bringing an adapted version of our summer reading club to them. A few months before I left, I also started working with the creative writing teacher at the high school to launch a literary magazine for teens that would solicit submissions from across the entire county. The relationships I built with the librarians and staff members at these organizations helped both of us create something neither of us could have done alone.

I’m glad I knew how valuable it is to have a professional community

This one is a little bit of a cheat because it’s something I discovered in library school and brought to my first job with me, but I still want to emphasize it.

So many YA librarians are basically solo librarians (and so many school librarians are quickly becoming the only librarians in their schools or districts) that working with teens can be lonely work. Having connections with other YA librarians — whether through local or state library associations, national associations, or just forming relationships online — is essential if you want to be exposed to new ideas, keep on top of what’s happening in the field, and find companionship with like-minded people. Once you’ve built a network, relationships can be sustained through email and Twitter exchanges, Facebook groups, and meet-ups at conferences. Especially since this job was my first one out of library school, I depended on my peers for practical ideas from programs to displays to ways to run a summer reading club. I also depended on them for encouragement when no one turned up for a program or when I met resistance to new ideas in my community. Honestly, I don’t know how I would have done my work without being able to rely on the inspiration and support of my colleagues across the country.

And as I found myself growing and learning, I discovered other librarians who were also building teen services programs from scratch, and we were able to learn from each other. We could share common concerns and questions and encourage one another. For example, after all the work I put into creating the spreadsheets I was using to track circulation, program attendance, and reference transactions, it felt great to share those templates with a fellow builder of teen services, have her crunch her own numbers, and see her use what she’d discovered in an annual report to her administration.

I also found that the work I was doing for YALSA and the work I was doing for my job fed one another. I served on (and then chaired) YALSA’s Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults committee, which made me a much more sophisticated listener and a better listeners’ advisor — and the conversations I had with kids and parents who enjoyed audiobooks helped me remember what to listen for in the titles the committee was evaluating. Chairing a committee helped reinforce my supervisory skills (useful in Teen Advisory Board meetings!) and time management skills. Managing YALSA’s YA lit-focused blog, The Hub, positively steeped me in the world of young adult literature, and the trends and connections that I noticed while I was ordering books or putting them on display or recommending them to patrons gave me ideas for posts for the blog. And through all of that work, I was meeting more people to add to my personal learning network.

Writing, both for my own blog and for the YALSAblog, also helped me live a more examined professional life. Having to sit down and think through what worked or didn’t for a program, how I was going to plan a new project, or what I had learned through some experience reinforced those lessons I’d learned and gave me the chance to see things from a different angle. This relates to writing a vision statement in that the more you think about what you’re doing and why you do what you do and how it’s going, the better equipped you are to make good decisions later.

I certainly wouldn’t have been as good at my job if I hadn’t had a network of peers, connections with other librarians further along in their careers, and fulfilling association work that reinforced what I was doing at my library. A library science degree is a static thing that you get once, but a good professional community is a never ending source of continued learning throughout one’s career.

Are there other builders of teen services out there? In 1995, 11% of libraries reported having a dedicated young adult librarian (either full-time or part-time); in 2007, that number was 62%[3], so when I started my job, I assumed that the upward trend would continue and that we’d see more builders of teen services. Unfortunately, the most recent Public Library Data Service (PLDS) survey from 2012 found that the percentage of libraries that reported having a full-time YA librarian dropped from 51% in 2008 to 33% in 2012[4], so it seems the number of builders of YA has likely shrunk. If library budgets ever improve and the YA librarian community can advocate for itself, it may be that we see more rebuilders of YA in the coming years — at least, I hope so.

There’s a lot I wish I had known when I started my last job and found myself unexpectedly building teen services from scratch, but there’s a lot I learned during my time with that library. Now that I’m in a new supervisory position, heading teen services at the New York Public Library’s Bronx Library Center, I’m once again finding that there’s a lot I don’t know — but I’m looking forward to learning, reflecting, and sharing with my professional community.

While there are other young adult librarians who are also the first YA person their library has had, their experiences are bound to be different from mine based on their libraries, communities, backgrounds, and circumstances. I was a new librarian, I was the first teen services librarian and a department of one, and I was part-time. I’m interested in how my perspective and experiences are similar to and different from those of other librarians who are building teen services from scratch, and I think we can benefit from sharing our stories with each other.

If you’re in a similar position, building YA services from scratch or rebuilding YA services after your library was without a staff member whose job was to serve teens, what has your experience been like? I found data collection and analysis, writing a vision, building relationships, and cultivating a professional network really important, but I’m sure others learned different things. Did you struggle with some of the same things I did? What have you had to learn quickly on the job? What about the job has surprised you? We can all benefit from each others’ experiences and become better librarians by sharing!


My sincerest thanks to Lead Pipe Editorial Board members Ellie Collier and Emily Ford for their patience and thoughtful editing and to my colleague Emily Calkins Charyk for her unique insight and immensely useful observations. Without them, I would have given up on trying to coalesce and condense my thoughts into this article long ago.


[1] Kolderup, Gretchen. (2011, January 24). Learning as I go: building a foundation for teen services. The YALSAblog. Retrieved from http://yalsa.ala.org/blog/2011/01/24/learning-as-i-go-building-a-foundation-for-teen-services/

[2] Kolderup, Gretchen. (2012, October 11). Connect, create, collaborate: Building teen services (nearly) from scratch. The YALSAblog. Retrieved from http://yalsa.ala.org/blog/2012/10/11/connect-create-collaborate-building-teen-services-nearly-from-scratch/

[3] Flowers, Sarah. (2012). Evaluating teen services and programs. Chicago: Neal-Schuman. 13.

[4] Young Adult Library Services Organization Board of Directors. (2013). Reaching Library Administrators. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/yalsa/sites/ala.org.yalsa/files/content/Administrators_MW13.pdf

14 Responses

  1. Gretchen — thank you so much for the endorsement! I’m so flattered! Also….awesome post. I’m starting a new job soon, and I feel like I need to remember a lot of this stuff. I’ve felt a bit bogged down lately and this is very inspiring. Thanks. :)

    1. Oh, you’re welcome! I meant it — I would have been much less sure of myself without your book, and I’d highly recommend it to just about anyone.

      Where’s the new job? Are you still doing school librarianship?

      1. That is really nice of you. Wow.
        I am going to Ethel Walker, a girls’ boarding school in Simbury, to be the head of their library. I’m really, really excited.

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  4. Gretchen, what motivated you to move the YA audiobooks to the adult audiobook collection? Was interfiling YA audio with YA print books not an option? (We are evaluating our collection locations, so this is interesting to me…)

    1. The YA audiobooks weren’t circulating well, so I wanted to do *something* with them. Most of the patrons who asked about them or whom I saw browsing them were adults (either parents looking for something to listen to on a family road trip or teachers trying to find a way to keep up with YA lit on their commute), and I couldn’t find a single teen who actually listened to audiobooks on their own — there’s a real stigma against them in the community where I used to work; a common response to me mentioning an audiobook was a withering “I KNOW how to READ.” It also seemed (from information conversation) that people only used audiobooks in certain circumstances (like road trips or commutes), so interfiling them with print fiction didn’t seem like the right choice — they weren’t viewed as equivalent to the print version of a book, and patrons who checked out audiobooks were specifically looking for that format.

      Obviously different communities have different users with different needs, so I think talking to your patrons is the best way to figure out what to do at your library!

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