YA Strike Zone December 2014

The Not-So-Great YA Space Debate

Anthony Bernier

I was ashamed to bring my friends home when I was a teenager. I just didn’t want them seeing our house–a tiny one-bedroom duplex for three children and my single mom who slept on the pull-out couch. Shame like that doesn’t easily dissipate. The relationships between youth, space, and social experience continue to inform my work as a professor.

My role obligates me to more rigorously support the claims I make about libraries, spaces, and young people than merely dispensing pronouncements from my own memory, anecdotes, or aspirations. Meeting ethical and professional obligations when preparing the next generation of YA specialists requires that I collect and analyze evidence to defend statements and generalizations. Perhaps YA services would emerge from its perpetually marginalized position in LIS if our national association, YALSA, shared a similar commitment.

For its part, our beloved VOYA has contributed to LIS’s growing interest in YA spaces by continuing to publish (since 1999) profiles of spaces by librarians. Rightfully, these profiles limit claims to their respective libraries. Several consultants have published monographs, chapters, and delivered training workshops about their experiences helping libraries experiment with YA spaces. Consultants often help identify patterns emerging from their clients’ libraries.

On the one hand, these librarians and consultants tend to qualify their claims about YA environments, while on the other, our most powerful professional association apparently feels no restraints on the generalizations, claims, and pronouncements it promotes.

YALSA recently published two reports or “guidelines” connected directly and indirectly to YA spaces. In the first, National Teen Space Guidelines (May 2012), readers learn that a six-member task force drafted the document eventually approved by the YALSA board. All six were female. None work in large urban libraries. It’s also fair to note that all were white. More to my point, however, is that together they apparently felt no obligation to produce, evaluate, or incorporate current and systematic research–despite citing sources.

Predictably, the Guidelines reproduce unsupported assumptions about libraries producing “successful transitions into adulthood” and privilege a vision of youth only as future-oriented beings (rather than youth in the present). It ignored important aspects about what librarians actually need to advocate for YA spaces. Notions about how to prepare teens to participate in space design processes are likewise absent–other than more unsupported pronouncements that “Teens become lifelong library users and supporters when . . . engaged in planning and decision-making . . .” More importantly, the Guidelines fail to identify any test or examination about the degree to which these assertions are helpful, accurate, demonstrate user satisfaction or meaningful outcomes, or serve merely as breathy aspirations.

YALSA’s more recent intervention, The Future of Library Services for and with Teen: A Call to Action (2014) produced much of the same in treating YA space (among other topics). An article published in VOYA attempted to summarize the report in a simplistic chart (“You Can Do It: Moving into the Future with Teen Library Services,” October 2014). In its hasty overuse of “paradigm shift” the article pronounces on YA space without evidence, practice-based analysis, priorities, or user outcomes, and thus fails to recognize its own contradictions.

Separate teen space is portrayed and simply dismissed as “the old way” (i.e., presumably prior to the arrival of “A Call to Action”), while “the new way” urges instead that teens be considered “within the whole library.”

First, the “old way” never happened. My own research documents how nearly 260 new libraries across the nation seldom devote more than .03 percent of their overall square footage to young adults. The past decade’s heightened sensitivity about YA space (including YALSA’s own Guidelines) has largely occurred only in rhetoric: Libraries have yet to offer young adults equitable space.

Furthermore, offering a purpose-built space designed with YA aesthetics does not preclude considering them citizens entitled to enjoy and exploit resources in the “whole library.” I don’t recall anyone ever even advancing this straw man argument. How many libraries would claim that they don’t already offer the “whole library?” Indeed, YA spaces have been envisioned as jumping-off launch pads . . . enticing young people with their own space and materials geared to their current interests while offering them connections and encouragement to thoroughly explore the rest of the library’s bounty.

In arguing that young adults do not benefit from equitable public space designed primarily for their use and enjoyment also contradicts every other major institution in civic life. Separate middle and senior high school spaces exist for a reason. There are reasons communities offer separate youth centers, why religious institutions have youth rooms, and why juvenile halls spatially separate youth from incarcerated adults. As historian Jason Reid recently argued, based on actual evidence, “. . . by the postwar years, providing teens spaces of their own in which to express their individuality was increasingly considered a staple of healthy child rearing.”

Decades of library design ignoring this notion speaks more to the institution’s cultural and spatial incapacity than to any “new way” concoction.

Finally, as librarians surveyed from all over the country document consistently improved YA service outcomes when they do offer separate and purpose-built YA space (as they do in our peer-reviewed IMLS-funded research), it’s disheartening to discover YALSA asserting, without evidence, just the opposite.

Yes, YALSA did call for public comment to consider other opinions, but ignoring already published legitimate peer-reviewed LIS research renders that call hollow. To make matters worse, these reports continue to ignore the insights from an explosion of interdisciplinary work being conducted on/with youth today. If this happens for YA space,  it certainly begs questions about the treatments of other topics in “A Call to Action.”

All this flies in the face of YALSA member value. A professional association should offer fortification and encouragement to grow. That fortification should be built on reliable information and current research. How can YA service expect to increase its influence in the profession, or even be treated on-par with other LIS roles, if it continues to issue such proclamations without systematically collected evidence, informed insights, and practice-based analysis?

Bernier headshotAnthony Bernier teaches at San Jose State’s School of Library and Information Science where he concentrates on research and teaching on the administration of equitable services with young people. A fourteen-year YA specialist librarian and administrator veteran and former chair of YALSA’s New Directions Task Force, he recently edited The Collected Wit and Wisdom of Dorothy M. Broderick, a Festschrift honoring Broderick, VOYA’s cofounder (VOYA Press, 2013). He lives in Oakland (CA) and rides a BMW R1100RT.

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1 Comment

  1. Barb Thompson says:

    I so appreciate reading your opposing viewpoint. Those of us with less experience in Youth Services anticipate that a professional organization would review research literature prior to publishing recommendations. We have become members because we are looking for assistance in making appropriate choices/decisions while acting on behalf of Teens. If existing research is not reviewed, how are we to trust any recommendations coming from YALSA?

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