YA Strike Zone April 2016

 The Coming of the Post-Teen “Young Adult”

Anthony Bernier

I’m finally hoisting the white flag of surrender – to children’s librarians.

I think it’s time for YA librarians to concede the Battle of the Manufactured “Tween” to the imperialism of children’s librarians and instead, redefine the library’s “young adult” demographic entirely.

I do not arrive at this decision lightly. Patient people, like Michael Cart, slowly persuaded me to see the sense in allowing the YA category to “grow up” and consider “YA” from sixteen years of age through the early-to-mid twenties. Both push and pull factors increasingly lean in this direction.

Chief among the “push” factors, we should recognize how children’s librarians all over the country, without serious deliberation, without the support of rigorous research, without debate or even collaborative discussion with their YA colleagues, simply looted YA librarianship of nearly half its audience.

Just look at the confusion and pandemonium caused recently at American Library Association’s (ALA) awarding the Caldecott to the same book receiving the Printz (see This One Summer, 2014).  A book clearly about coming of age is simply appropriated by children’s librarians.

I am now of the mind to simply surrender to the children’s services vision of collections and access, programming, outreach, planning and policy, through the age of fifteen. It is not fair or right to treat teenagers as tall children. This circumstance drives a wedge into the still nascent movement for an equitable share of library space for young people – what reasonable library will design space for only the remaining three or four years that children’s librarians have left for the “YA” category? Our culture’s built environments marginalize youth, so why expect libraries to be any different? 

Surrender, after all, requires concession.

Professional imperialism aside, there are increasingly persuasive “pull” factors that “young adulthood” has changed. First, and most relevant, is the realization that prevailing age categories are intrinsically arbitrary. As I and others point out elsewhere, the library science vision of youth derives from a long-outdated 19th century paradigm of human development. This simplistic age-based marker for youth resembles the practice of defining women only by marital status as occurred in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

For decades, LIS has used terms like “at-risk,” “youth development,” “positive youth development,” among others. At base, however, they all share a deficit and narrow culture-specific notions of young people and privilege adult agendas over lived youth experience. After all, the story goes, libraries must help prepare youth for “the future.”

 “How did it become so easy for us,” asks youth studies scholar, Yen Yen Woo, “to assume that teenagers are an undifferentiated group, uniformly hormonal, rebellious, and not wholly responsible, while the mere crossing of some arbitrary temporal line [age eighteen] confers upon one individuality, moral authority, and responsibility?”

Recognizing these arbitrary age-based definitions, however, frees up the possibility to invent new categories more in line with our diverse contemporary culture and more complex notions of what “youth” means today. Social policy authorities are now seriously arguing that childhood extends up to age twenty-four.

In reclining on the prevailing dated vision of youth, LIS also participates in the broader erasure of how young people contribute to culture. Histories that include young people teach us a different lesson. Their presence, from the 1930s Southern Negro Youth Congress to the front lines of 1950s Jim Crow library racial desegregation “read-ins” in Alabama, to anti-war activism (Students for a Democratic Society) and anti-racism movements (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Chicano Moratorium walkouts) of the 1960s, to the Student Youth Organization for Black Unity in the 1970s, to the more recent Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements, all document a long, sustained, and diverse record of youth impacts on history and the culture. Yet nobody asked how many “community assets” these “kids” needed – to know right from wrong, to learn peer pressure resistance, to partner with community resources to grow into healthy, caring, and responsible adults.

Second, an evidence-based tidal wave of analysis from youth studies scholars is currently documenting how historically aberrant our current age-based markers have been; how “decoupled” from a mythically smooth transition between youth to adulthood. The point isn’t that kids just can’t seem to “grow up,” but that society constantly alters what being “young” or “adult” means.

Of course, such derogatory clichéd labeling like “tweens” or “twixters” fail to take account of today’s economic and social contexts.  Long pre-dating the 2008 economic collapse, new realities of the job and housing markets, the educational system, huge regional differences, to say nothing of the continuing ricochets of American race, class, gender, and immigration legacies all conspire to recalibrate previous age-based conventions.

A third “pull” factor in defining YAs from age sixteen through the mid-twenties is that, at long last, libraries might stop conflating youth with “students” (as many will have aged-out of compulsory education or may be in vocations). Youth inhabit schools for only a part of their day. Many don’t like being reduced to that label or are not good at being students. Schools operate their own libraries. Public libraries run on a different mission.

Civil society, representing a forth “pull” factor, is already moving toward redefinition. Youth drive at sixteen. A movement to enfranchise sixteen-year-olds with the local vote is taking hold at both ends of the country. In San Francisco, this issue is on the November ballot. The Pew Research Center, among the most important sources of LIS user information, goes even further, defining young adults between ages eighteen and twenty-nine – and finds that this is the most literate demographic in the society!

We are now observing in these “pull” factors the ascendency of a new and transformative definition of YA. Not one placated by canned summer reading themes or flimsy fleeting “maker spaces,” but a redefinition of civic youth – extending beyond arbitrary chronological markers, and entitled to a full share of information services connected to their needs, desires, expectations, not the 19th-century agendas of adults or libraries.

Bernier headshot

Anthony Bernier teaches at San Jose State University’s School of Information where he conducts research, teaches, and publishes on the administration of equitable services with young people. A fourteen-year YA specialist librarian and veteran administrator, he is a former chair of YALSA’s New Directions Task Force, served a four-year term on ALA’s Committee on Accreditation (COA), and published a Festschrift honoring VOYA co-founder Dorothy M. Broderick in 2013. He lives in Oakland, California, and rides a BMW R1150RT.


Our culture’s built environments marginalize youth, so why


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