On a cool morning a few weeks ago, Maya Escobar noticed a young woman tentatively looking around Cambridge Public Library’s Teen Room. Escobar offered to help, and the hoodie-clad teen said she was looking for “Gossip Girl,” a best-selling series about the romantic escapades of wealthy boarding school students that had been adapted for TV.
Escobar, a teen-services librarian sporting a lock of dyed pink hair, headed for the stacks. But the young woman was out of luck: “Gossip Girl” had been checked out. Escobar chatted with her a bit longer, and the teen left with several recommendations for books — and an application for a library card.
Escobar is one of a mushrooming corps of librarians in Greater Boston working to put books in the hands of young readers. She is part of an increasingly visible group that has almost doubled in size in the past 13 years. At 5,200 members, the Young Adult Library Services Association is the fastest-growing professional organization in the field.
“Teen services have exploded in the last decade,” says YALSA president Shannon Peterson. She attributes the increase in part to the relatively large size of the current teen population in the United States.
But the push for young adult — or YA — librarians also comes at the confluence of two other trends: the reinvention of public libraries as community centers of learning, information, and enrichment and the surge of literature aimed specifically at a teen audience.
This new breed shares some distinguishing traits. A goodly percentage, Peterson says, are new to the field and “on the young side” themselves. Perhaps because of their relative youth, they also display a distinct sense of mission. In fact, a team from the Boston Public Library works to ensure incarcerated teens have access to YA literature.
To serve a group raised in the digital age, YA librarians have adjusted accordingly. Where their predecessors counted on bulletin boards to communicate with patrons, this new group tends to have Internet presences, maintaining blogs, Tumblrs, Twitter accounts, and Facebook pages for their teen collections. Many are active bloggers within the hyperactive YA literature blogosphere, making their knowledge of and passion for the books in their collections obvious to authors, publishers, and teenage fans.
If they’re lucky, YA librarians preside over a designated space where their young patrons can browse, chat freely, and check their Facebook pages without irritating other library users. Escobar’s domain, unveiled in 2009 as part of a $90 million renovation, is an airy, brick-lined sanctuary with windows stretching up to the cathedral ceiling.
Adults seeking YA novels, and there are plenty of them, may peruse shelves filled with manga, urban fantasy, and paranormal romance, but they can’t linger: The Teen Room is reserved for patrons aged 12-18.
As far as Escobar is concerned, her mission is to help teens read what they want and keep them interested in reading. “At this age, the books [teens] read really mean something to them,” she said. “This is our last chance to make readers.”
Young adult fiction didn’t reach its stride until the late ’60s, when books like S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” — widely considered to be the first YA novel — enraptured a robust crop of baby boomers. Harry Potter, a phenomenon of a more recent vintage, helped usher in what Publishers Weekly has called “The YA Decade” because of its exponential rise of titles and readers.
Since the turn of the millennium, hardcover novels have become trendy teenage status symbols while millions of adults stopped feeling embarrassed to be seen with copies of Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight.”
In that same time, libraries have remade themselves into public meeting spaces that facilitate research, dole out free Wi-Fi, host public meetings and forums, and help people surmount the digital divide. Teen library services have adjusted in turn.
“Instead of just pushing books, we try to provide more of a connective learning approach,” Peterson says. “We connect what they’re interested in to our programming, sneaking in research and books.” According to a recent Pew Research Center survey about the library usage of young Americans, they are “significantly more likely than those ages 30 and older to use the library as a study or ‘hang out’ space.” The operative word is “or” — the important part, it seems, is getting teenagers to show up.
Since she assumed her post as young adult librarian at Braintree’s Thayer Public Library in January of last year, Ellen Seeburger has tried to increase teen-oriented art and culture programs. Among her successes have been a weeklong creative writing class, a drawing club, and workshops for stop-animation, beading, and constructing miniature hamburgers out of candy.
“Kids come to programs, and they end up staying afterward and looking at materials,” Seeburger says. “They want to be creative without too much direction.”
Thayer’s teen room, added in 1999 when the library was rebuilt, predates many others in the area. Meanwhile, teen patrons of the Lynn Public Library didn’t have a place to call their own until earlier this year.
“Being the children’s librarian for 15 years, I saw kids grow up in the library,” says director Theresa Hurley. “They came in for elementary crafts and story time and homework help, but when they got to high school, we didn’t have anything for them. . . . They’re one of our biggest populations, but they weren’t being served.”
When Hurley was appointed to her new post, her first priority was to change that. Last November, the Lynn Public Library received a grant from the Institute of Library and Museum Services and the MacArthur Foundation to design and plan a technology lab for teens. In January, Hurley hired Katelyn Cole, Lynn’s first designated young adult librarian. On Martin Luther King Day, a group of volunteers set about constructing a teen space.
Now that Lynn’s young-adult services are up and running, the library regularly hosts writing and drawing workshops. Cole has taught teens how to use the iPad and facilitated a workshop where participants learned how to create their own video games.
“Teens require more understanding and a wider range of materials,” Hurley says. “We’ve always had a teen population, but once we had a focused teen space and programs, that population definitely grew.”
Brookline has a space for young adults but lacks someone to serve them exclusively. Instead, they have Robin Brenner, a librarian who splits her time between the reference desk and the teen room.
Brenner’s interactions with teens largely center around the programs she runs, including frequent cupcake decorating sessions and an annual event that transforms the library into a mini-golf course. Her most frequent and significant encounters are with those she calls “the manga kids,” members of the library’s Manga and Anime Club.
Brenner has much to offer them: She is a published expert on manga and anime; she has developed one of the largest comics collections in the state; she teaches a Teen Lit Boot Camp at Simmons; and she runs the website “No Flying No Tights,” a blog that reviews graphic literature for teens and adults.
The manga kids meet to discuss comics, watch films, and dress up in character. Earlier this month, they hosted a listening party for “Welcome to Night Vale,” an incredibly popular podcast about a creepy fictional town.
Haley Cramer, a junior at Brookline High School, is one such manga kid. “It’s really fun,” she says. “I’ve met a lot of friends. If you don’t know someone there, it’s not a problem.” Cramer has been in the club for three years, and her favorite event to date was an “Alice in Wonderland” costume tea party.
“We have a good time,” Brenner says. “But you can get very depressed very quickly when you compare your numbers to children’s programming, because they’re always going to have much higher attendance — mainly because their parents force them to come. Teenagers have to come on their own, and that’s the hardest thing.”
Of course, there are some local teenagers who can’t come to the library at all, like those in the custody of the Department of Youth Services. Jessi Snow, the youth services coordinator at the Boston Public Library, started lending books to incarcerated teens in 2010.
Three years later, the program has grown to include three librarians and eight facilities. Each month, they put together a collection of books to take to the facility, fill the requests of those serving lengthy sentences, deliver short talks for the books they’ve brought, and sign kids up for library cards.
“This is a time when they are hungry for reading materials,” Snow says. “They are bored to death and have so few choices in their lives. I think you want to be giving them some normalcy at a time like that.”
Laura Koenig, the head of youth services at the Boston Public Library, has been working in the DYS program for over a year.
“The last time that I went, everyone was head down in a book,” says Koenig, whose hair is the color of cotton candy. Recently, inmates at several institutions got very into Simone Elkeles’s “Perfect Chemistry” trilogy about the romance between a gang member and a perfect girl. “The Hunger Games” has been a perennial favorite.
“It’s the same teenagers that we see in here,” Koenig says, referring to the BPL teen room. “It changes how I see all the teens that I meet.”
The same thing that scares people away from teens, Koenig says, is the same thing that draws her and other young librarians to them. “Everything’s huge,” she said. “That’s why I love to read about teens, and read mostly teen books. It’s a time when everything is enormous and everything is important. I think you can make a difference to a teenager — or at least just be someone who’s friendly and helpful.”
Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.