The American Library Association’s Annual Let-down

The American Library Association’s Annual Conference is this weekend. It’s camp for library workers, but not just public librarians like me (that’s who PLA’s biannual conference is for). International, school, academic, business, medical, government; if it has a library, it’s represented at ALA’s Annual Conference.

So imagine my surprise when I perused the schedule and noticed a severe lacking of panels or workshops on the topic of teenagers. 

As in, there are 17 programs with the word “teen” in the description. 

14 of them are YA authors or book review programs. 

That leaves 3 whole programs that aren’t about books, but about actual teenagers. 

Three programs over a four day period. 

(I’m not counting book-promo events because YA is a hugely popular category of books for adult readers, despite the embarrassingly small number of libraries that support and advocate for actual teenagers in their spaces and communities. Money is given to the category of book, but not the audience they were intended for.)

I’m not trying to bite the hand that feeds me. ALA is a good organization that advocates and lobbies for libraries and librarians; and provides grants and numerous professional development opportunities for their members, among other benefits. I have been a member for nine years, and ALA Annual in Washington, DC in 2010 was my first ALA event ever. Suffice it to say that I’m a fan. 

But three teen-centered programs over four days? That’s not enough. Library staff who support teenagers deserve more time than that to convene and discuss best practices, recent themes, common occurrences and rising issues. Library staff that are dedicated to the entire demographic of those ages 12-18 (or 11-17 or 12-19, whatever you define as teenager) are in high-supply, but, tragically, low-demand.

Those in libraries who serve teenagers have an opportunity every year to attend the YALSA conference, the Young Adult Services Symposium. Three days of all-YA all the time. Check out the subtitle for the 2019 symposium:

But the problem is that the symposium is geared towards those who love and love working with teenagers. What about the non-teen serving staff? (Managers, supervisors, library generalists…) They have three opportunities at ALA Annual to learn more about teenagers. It’s highly unlikely they’ll be sent to the YALSA symposium just to learn a few things, so an event like ALA could be their only chance.

But three chances?

You could argue that the Public Library Association’s bi-annual conference is another excellent resource for such staff. Sure! But then you’re missing out on all of the different types of libraries that serve young people. Academic libraries serve teenagers. Government (such as military base libraries) serve teenagers. School libraries serve teenagers. They all already have their niche (and likely, their niche conference or symposium), and unless they’re the wealthiest library in the country, staff are probably not being sent to multiple conferences a year.

It boils down to this: not enough attention is given to serving, working with, employing, hiring as volunteers, or advocating for teenagers at the 2019 American Library Association Annual Conference.

Is it the organizer’s fault? Maybe.

Is it that there were too few conference proposals on the topic to pick from? I’m not privy to that information, and it’s a darn shame if that’s the truth of the matter.

But what I can say is that three is not enough. In Chicago in 2020 I’d like to see the following:

  1. Engaging Teenagers as Volunteers and Interns in Any Library Setting (which could focus on understanding the teen brain, the Millennial experience, and the 21st century skills teenagers will be required to have in the coming years)  
  2. Best Practices for Hiring Teen Summer Interns (as hosted by librarians who successfully won grants that enabled them to do such)
  3. Programming for Teens, and No, Not Just Your Regulars (outreach!)
  4. Teen Advisory Boards for the 2020s (are teens serving on boards? Members of the Friends groups? How are their expertise and energy being embraced?)

Homework: Do you want to host a program at ALA Annual 2020 in Chicago? Email me. Let’s make it happen.

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