[Editor’s note: Deborah is a valued member of the VOYA Editorial Advisory Board and long time VOYA friend.]
My first experience behind the scenes in young adult services came as a college student during a summer internship at the Pratt Library. I had chosen the library from a list of agencies because I’d been an avid reader as a child and teen. In the early 70s urban libraries were changing and I arrived as the Pratt Librarywas getting deeper into the community outreach that started with Margaret Edwards taking her book wagon into poor neighborhoods. By the time I came onboard as a young professional, libraries were changing rapidly and services to young people were in the vanguard. Young adult collections and activities were, by their very nature, centered in their audience and while that might seem obvious for all areas of library, it was not at the time. I was trained by Sara Siebert, Margaret Edward’s successor at the Pratt so I knew how to talk about books, identify teen interests, and make connections. But as an African American, I was also influenced by older African American librarians and encouraged to provide materials and programs that would encourage Black teens to see the library as a resource for their own development. It was an exciting and challenging time as we tried various types of programs to reach teens in libraries.
Some years later, I became the young adult services specialist, a job that meant I was now taking on the role of Sara Siebert. I remember the first time I introduced myself at American Library Association (ALA) and someone said, “you have Margaret Edwards’ job!” I nearly passed out. All of us who work in YA services are connected to the legacy of “Alex” as her friends called her. Not long after that, I was recruited to be a group leader at a YALSA (I believe it was called YASD then) “Best of the Best Books” preconference. In my group was the legend and VOYA co-founder Mary K. Chelton, who trained and worked at the Pratt under Mrs. Edwards. Her good advice and mentoring set me on the path for my career.
Through the years, the Pratt Library continued to evolve and change how we serve teen users as the field changed. Technology brought big changes and probably did more to bring young men into our libraries than anything else we did. Like many urban libraries, we were faced with high demand and limited resources to meet that demand. Grant funded programs and partnerships outside the library became imperatives as we tried to keep up.
A major milestone and boost for our services came in 1999 when the Pratt library became one of nine libraries to receive a grant from the Wallace Reader’s Digest Funds to implement a youth development program in our system. We designed and began a program for teens to serve as interns in our libraries while earning service learning hours required for graduation. What began as an experimental pilot in five locations, has been institutionalized as the cornerstone of our youth services throughout the system. With an emphasis on leadership skills, job preparation, and adult/youth engagement, we continue to maintain the core elements of youth development. Over the past three years, we have had terrific youth workers to manage the program, especially its current program specialist, Michael Jones, who brings a coaching background to his work with our teens.
Working in youth services has given me some amazing opportunities. In 1991, Mary K. Chelton, then working in Maryland, spearheaded a conference to honor Margaret Edwards. “Books for the Beast” became one of the first projects of the Margaret Edwards Trust. When Mary K. left Maryland to go to Rutgers University, I took over as Chair of the conference and we are currently planning our eleventh bi-annual celebration of the best in young adult literature. We always include teen readers as well as librarians and teachers, and thanks to the generosity of the leadership at Roland Park country School, we have what amounts to a day’s retreat, with teens and adults sharing what they love about YA books. Thanks to the work of an awesome planning committee and supportive Pratt staff, the conference remains well received and a popular activity in our region.
For many years, I was a guest speaker at Dr. Jim Liesener’s YA class at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies, my alma mater. When he retired, I was asked to teach the class and it remains one of the highlights of my professional year. The enthusiasm of the students for the literature and the challenges of making the connection between literature and teen readers is never stale.
The Pratt Library has been incredibly supportive of my professional involvement in the ALA. I suppose it helps that our executive director is an ALA Past-President. I’ve had the opportunity serve as YALSA president, Chair of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards, and many committees. It was so exciting to preside over the Youth Media Awards and I even got a chance to join Neil Gaiman and Beth Krommes for the 2009 Newbery/Caldecott announcements.
When people express surprise that I have been working in YA services at the Pratt Library for thirty-seven years, I have a hard time conveying that I may have remained in the same field, but the field and my library has changed so much and often, it’s as though I have held many different types of jobs in different places. We recently opened a newly refurbished teen space, thanks to a generous bequest from the estate of Sara Siebert and it is thriving under the leadership of Teen Librarian Liz Sunderman.
In a way, joining the VOYA board feels a little like coming home. In addition to working with folks I respect so much, it reminds me of how I felt when Mary K. Chelton thought I might have something to offer the field and encouraged me to grow and develop until I really did have something to give. It also reminds me of those years when serving teens seemed like a lonely business and the arrival of VOYA meant you were not on your own. Fortunately, the community of teen advocates in libraries has grown and VOYA continues to have an important role in that growth.
Deborah Taylor- February 2011