This blog post has been a long time coming.

I actually came up with the title of this post several months ago, as I was trying to find the words to express the highs and lows of working with this particular age group.  The highs are few and far between, but when they DO happen they are so sweet that I cling to those memories with a ferocity that is both poignant and (to be honest) a little bit mental.  The lows can be so frustrating that they leave me questioning my career as a whole, or at the very least wondering what’s the point of having a summer reading club kickoff if not a single participant shows the slightest interest in actually READING.

More on that in a moment.

One of the best things and one of the worst things about teenagers is that they will often speak to you without filters.  This has led to statements as uplifting as “You rock!” and “That was so cool!  Where did you learn to talk about books like that?”  It has also led to statements as painful as “I’m not saying you’re fat or nothing, but … are you pregnant?” and “Oh my God!  You’re older than my mom!”

Some of my favorite interactions with teens since I’ve been working as a young adult librarian have been when they’ve asked me for my opinion on a subject that touches their lives.  Sometimes these conversations happen in settings that I expect, like when I’m having a Teen Advisory Group meeting composed of some of my best and most thoughtful kids who are all gathered around a table for the purpose of talking and listening to each other.

But sometimes these conversations happen in unexpected places, like in the middle of a gaming program in which I’m multitasking between making sure the players are playing fairly (read: not cheating, yelling, or hitting each other), making sure that the other kids in the room are behaving (read: not making out, yelling, or hitting each other), and listening to a podcast through one of my earbuds while I check my email on my iPod Touch.

It was in this setting about a month ago that one of the girls who regularly attends the games program suddenly called across the room to me, “Miss, why would a boy who’s a high school senior keep dating much younger girls?”  I’d been watching her conferring with a girlfriend for the last five minutes, so I gathered that this was an extension of that conversation and that they’d been talking about one of their classmates.  I took out the earbud, closed my email, and gave the girls my honest opinion.  Well, I kind of had to yell my honest opinion, since we were across the room from each other and there were several boys playing a video game between us.  But the point is, after several months of attending my program, she’d come to the conclusion that even though I was an authority figure who spent way too much time in “bossy” mode, that I appeared to have a brain in my head and/or a sense of humor, and that it might be worth asking my opinion on one of life’s great mysteries.

NOTE: Actually, it’s really not all that mysterious.  It’s a similar principle to the “big fish in a small pond” theory that I apply to teenagers who keep trying to hang out in the children’s room after they’re clearly too old to be there.  It’s a lot easier to impress someone younger, and it’s a lot easier to fool someone younger.  At least, this is the conclusion I reached when I dated a classmate my freshman year of college, I broke up with him because he was a frigging mental patient, and he then proceeded to date a string of high school girls.  Because apparently, it took them longer to discover that he was an immature, unstable, and emotional screwup.

Not that I’m still bitter, or anything.

Anyway, I gave the girls a condensed version of the conclusions I’d drawn from my own tragic dating history, and they seemed suitably impressed.  I’m sure they continued to discuss this boy and maybe they’re STILL discussing him, and I hope that my words helped them to see this boy from a different perspective.  After all, age and experience have to be worth SOMETHING, right?

Teenagers at the library are more likely to smile, and laugh, and say over-the-top things like “This book changed my life!”  They’re also more likely to show up at the library wearing fairy wings (“just because”), or offer me a fist bump, or come at me like they’re going to hug me …

Well, that’s when I get to make a split-second decision.  If it’s a girl who I’ve developed a bond of trust with, then it’s okay.  If it’s a boy who presumably wants to test my boundaries / wants to distract me from noticing his friends who are hitting each other / wants to cop a feel / wants to show off to his friends / etc.  then the answer is a definitive NO.  Or, as I expressed it to the last boy who tried it, “Nice try, Bright Eyes.  It ain’t gonna happen.”

So there are the positive interactions with teens that fill my heart.  The times they laugh at my jokes, or tell me how much they enjoyed my presentation to their class, or talk to me about the books they love, or ask me questions about real-life issues (mostly about boys, but sometimes about other things, too) and then they LISTEN to my answers.

And then there are the negative interactions.  By which I mean …

God help me …

it’s now time for me to share the story of MY MOST DISASTROUS SUMMER READING CLUB KICKOFF PARTY EVER.

So I’d spent a lot of time getting the room ready.  Rearranging the furniture, setting out free books, preparing handouts, putting out refreshments, setting up a laptop for online registration, and preparing a raffle.  Then the program started, and the first boy showed up.  Which, frankly, was weird, since it’s usually girls who come to my book-themed programs.  Then another boy showed up, and another boy, and another boy, and another boy, and another boy …

This was a momentous occasion, Dear Readers.  I have NEVER, in almost 20 years of public librarianship, had a reading program attended by all boys before.

And on a related note, the next time I complain that I don’t have enough boys come to my reading programs … please remind me of this day.

Anyway, every time I tried to start the program, some new distraction happened.  One of them took too many cookies, and the other boys started yelling at him.  Then one of them kept leaving the room to see what his friends were doing on the computers outside.  Then another one left to use the bathroom.  Then another one left to see where the other boys went.  Then two of them wouldn’t stop giggling.  Then one of them took out his foam dart gun and started shooting the other boys with it.

Most of them had the attention spans of hummingbirds (or is it goldfish?  Which species remembers less?)  I started talking about the badges they could earn on the summer reading website, and one of the boys said, “Badges? Where???” and started pawing through everything on the table as though I’d hidden them beneath the bookmarks.  When I referred to myself as the young adult librarian, one of the boys (the one with the shortest attention span, who was of course the one with the foam dart gun) interrupted me and yelled incredulously, “Wait … you’re YOUNG???”

So, yeah.  THAT was a highlight.

So I was getting to the end of my rope when one of the boys who’d been running in and out of the room came in and told one of the other boys that they had to leave, so then they asked if we could do the raffle early.  I walked up to the raffle box to discover that one of the boys had had enough mental faculties to write his name down on a piece of paper, but had apparently spaced out on the “then put the paper in the box” instruction.  I also decided to double-check a sneaking suspicion that was nibbling at the back of my brain and confirmed that yes, one of the boys (the one with the shortest attention span) (the one with the foam dart gun) (the one who thought it would be ironically HILARIOUS to refer to me as “young”) had put his name into the raffle box multiple times.  What a gem!

So we had the raffle, and the winner walked off with his prize (a Plants vs. Zombies hat that my boyfriend’s daughter had picked up at a convention and donated to my program).  And I tell you, Dear Readers, not ten seconds had passed after the raffle was done before one of the boys (I’ll let you guess which one) yelled, “CAN WE GO NOW?”

I looked at the clock, I looked at the boys, and I said, “Yes, I think that’s a good idea.”

As they left, I called out after them, “Next time, we’re going to talk about books you’ve read lately!”  But I’m pretty sure that my words fell on deaf and disinterested ears.

I have high hopes that this week’s program will go better … by which I mean that more girls will come, and that those boys will find something more constructive to do.

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We’ve spent the last few days readjusting from vacation mode into work mode, and dealing with the unnerving sensation of coming back to an apartment where someone else (my boyfriend’s daughter) was living for the last week.  Our reactions have varied from Why did she use THOSE towels instead of the brand-new ones we left out for her? to Why is my coffee cup overflowing?  Ohhhhh, she reset the cup size on our Keurig machine! to Please God, tell me she didn’t have sex with her boyfriend on our couch!

You know, the usual stuff.

I want to write a more comprehensive blog post about Chicago, as well as put up a ton of pictures on Flickr.  But I want to put up some older pictures first, and I haven’t gotten around to doing that yet, so now I’m just in limbo mode until I get the motivation to catch up with the tasks I’ve assigned for myself.

Today I went to set up for my teen game program, and discovered that one of the major components had been stolen from the box, making the game basically inoperable.  I want to say “Heads are gonna roll,” but what I really mean is, “When I find the person who did this, I’m going to hang said person off of the roof of our library by his or her ankles until he or she convinces me that he or she is REALLY VERY SINCERELY SORRY ABOUT DOING THAT.”

In the meantime, though, we have to wait and see if a replacement game is in the library’s budget.  Would anybody like to start taking bets???

This afternoon we were subjected to one of the loudest programs I’ve ever heard in a library setting.  Note to performers:  Please decide whether or not you actually need an amplifier for a program in a public library’s open space, and if you feel that you DO need one (like if the people sitting between two and ten feet away from you have stuffed cotton in their ears and wouldn’t be able to hear you otherwise), then would you please consider TURNING THE DAMNED THING DOWN, PLEASE???

I’ve spent the last several days shopping for my summer reading club party, which promises to be an event to be remembered.  Okay, if previous years are any indication, it promises to begin with my teens diving for the refreshments like hyenas tearing apart a dead zebra, and end with a rush for the prize table like … well, it’s kind of the same thing, really.  On the plus side, all that rushing usually means we finish earlier than usual, and I have some time to decompress afterwards.

We’re going out to dinner with the Geek Patrol at a Filipino restaurant, so I emailed Cara (one of my oldest friends, and coincidentally someone of the Filipino persuasion) for some pointers and recommendations about what we should order and/or avoid.  Armed with her extremely thorough notes (Thanks, Dear!) we should have a cool new dining experience ahead of us.

The rest of the weekend, we’ll be decompressing and catching up with stuff like laundry, reading, writing my next podcast episode (two words: CORE CURRICULUM), finishing (finally?) the editing process on our last collaborative podcast effort, and cat snuggling.  Hooray for three-day weekends!!!

One of my best readers complained to me the other day that she was having trouble on the summer reading website registering her branch preference.  [Side note: there is such a huge push towards using the website that this year we didn’t even get paper logs for the teens to record the list of books they read over the summer!]

So I went into the administrative end of the website to see if I could figure out what was what.  It’s strange enough trying to find my teens by the wacky nicknames that the website generates, like FlyingPurpleDinosaur or ElatedPinkHippo, but then once I started exploring I was even more confused.  I found my reader’s record and was able to give her some badges (including the one that says that my branch is her favorite branch), but I couldn’t confirm or deny if she’d been able to enter my branch into her record correctly when she registered for the summer reading club.  And Lord knows, if she’s going to be my top reader like she was last year, I definitely want my branch to get the credit for all the work she’s putting into logging and reviewing books.

[ETA: Ah, okay.  I did find her listed under “users at your branch,” so apparently she did click on the right button.  This doesn’t explain why it didn’t seem to go through when she clicked my branch name multiple times, or what I could have done if she’d clicked the wrong button.]

And THEN there was the puzzling reoccurence of participants whose “last access” is registered as being “41 years 28 weeks ago,” which I’m fairly sure is impossible since most of our participants weren’t even alive at that time.

It’s like each time this website is improved, I seem to understand it less.

Do you want to hear about the good stuff first or the bad stuff?  Let’s deal with the bad stuff first and get that out of the way.

Crappy, Lousy, Awful Stuff That Happened This Week

1. My cat was sick.  By which I mean, keeling over, throwing up, horribly dehydrated, oh-my-God-he’s-going-to-DIE sick. Our best guess is that he must have eaten something that had an allergic/poisonous effect on him because he went from absolutely fine to violently ill so quickly.  My prime suspect is some horrible venomous flying bug, since I had been bitten several times the night before he started showing symptoms.  Or maybe it was the new “cat grass” that my boyfriend bought for him.  But whatever the cause, it lasted about 24 hours, plus another day where he came out of the closet and was walking around very slowly, blinking at us in confusion.  He’s better now, but I’ve never seen him so sick before and it scared the hell out of me.

2. I visited a lot of classes this week, and some of them were so disruptive (not in a mean way, but in a “we’d rather talk to each other than listen to you” way) that I started losing my voice from trying to make myself heard.

3. We were thinking that each branch would get two or three “big” prizes to raffle off to the teens in our summer reading clubs.  Today I learned that we’re just getting one.  Granted, it’s an iPod Touch, but it’s going to be a little hard to keep the momentum going for an entire summer for a whole group of kids by dangling one carrot in front of all of them.   Another interesting (challenging?) issue is the copy on the flyers we received promoting our summer reading kickoff, which included the line, “Join in the discussion, check out the programs, and see the fabulous prizes you could win!”  By my understanding the only “fabulous” prize the kids have any chance of winning is that iPod Touch, which I won’t actually have at the time of the kickoff date.  I suppose I could show the kids a PICTURE of an iPod …

4. Our budget is still bad.  Bone-crushingly, tragically bad.  We’re having a letter-writing campaign, but we don’t know how much good it will actually do.  We’re still collecting as many letters as possible, but opinions are mixed about whether or not we’re wasting our time.  Glass half full?  All of our letters blanket the mayor’s office like the scene at the end of Miracle on 34th Street and our budget is miraculously restored.  Glass half empty?  We expend tremendous energy getting our patrons to write tons of letters, and it doesn’t do a damn bit of good.  On a possibly related note, we’re having a staff meeting next week during which our network manager will be in attendance and bad news will be revealed.  Very bad news, if the rumors are true.

Funny, Entertaining, Delightful  Stuff That Happened This Week

1. I’ve been getting a lot of great feedback from many of the kids who heard my presentations and booktalks in their school and are are now seeking me out in the library.  Having kids run in and ask me for copies of the books I talked about is the closest I’ll ever come to being a celebrity.  Plus I got a lot of good reactions from the teachers, as well.  It was especially cool to booktalk a bunch of titles including I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets: Six-Word Memoirs by Teens Famous & Obscure, and then when the bell rang at the end of the period to hear the teacher say, “Your homework for tomorrow is … <dramatic pause> … to write a six-word memoir about yourself!”

2. I cleared a student’s fines in the library using the Fresh Start program, and her response was one I’d never experienced before.  She said, “Yay!  High-five!” and held up her hand for me to slap it.  I froze like a deer in the headlights, and she responded to my bemused expression by saying, “… or … not?”  I laughed and offered her a fist bump instead.  All the entertainment value with no germ exchange, I always say.

3. I had a kid’s record open today on my computer screen as I was checking that an old problem with his record had been resolved (it had), when I noticed the book that was currently checked out on his account: 101 Ways to Bug Your Teacher.  We had a good laugh, and as soon as he left I called my boyfriend to let him know about the weapons that were being used by the student underground.

4. One of our teen patrons came in today dressed like a bear.  A polar bear, to be precise.  I was on the phone discussing the teacher-bugging book when I looked up and saw a large white creature waving at me from across the room.  So then I spent the next few minutes convincing my boyfriend that now I’d seen EVERYTHING in the library.

Thursday and Friday my lungs were so congested that they felt like they were filled with cement.  After tons of herbal tea (laced with lemon, honey, and echinacea), water, and over-the-counter expectorants, by Saturday my lungs felt like they were filled with sand and I started coughing green stuff out of my lungs.  By Sunday I was strong enough to leave the apartment without keeling over.  And today I went back to work.

For the most part things went well today, but on several levels I felt like I was moving underwater.  The main reason was that everything I tried to do on the computers took FOR-FRIGGING-EVER.  Here was a typical example:

scan barcode

wait

stare at the screen

look at the barcode on the book in my hand

double-check that the barcode on the book is the same as the barcode on the screen

watch the hourglass appear on the screen

stare at the hourglass

stare at the hourglass

stare off into space

tidy up papers on the desk

stare at the hourglass

see the record for the item finally appear on the screen

verify that the information is correct

click on “Close”

REPEAT

After scanning item after item this way, I eventually started checking my watch and seeing how long these transactions were actually taking.  The record was 17 seconds from the initial barcode scan to the actual results that I was looking for.  And it was bad enough when I was working on books by myself; it was much worse when a patron would come up to me with a typical question (like “Do you have this book?”) and we got to enjoy those long awkward pauses together.

The second reason that I felt like I was underwater was because it was gruesomely humid today.  When I walked out of the library at the end of the day, it felt like a wet dog was sitting on my head.  And the atmosphere wasn’t doing my lungs any favors, either.  Ugh.

Tomorrow I begin our summer reading club signup in earnest, visiting local schools every morning for the rest of the week.  This will be an interesting endeavor, since I have NO summer reading club materials.  But we’re supposed to sign up kids for the club, and sign up as many as possible as quickly as possible.  I have already ranted (repeatedly) about the pressure to sign up kids and to increase our statistics, even if we’re basically creating empty numbers.  But it just adds insult to injury to keep expecting us to do more while giving us less.  But, you know, whatever.  I’ll sign up the kids using the 2009 sign-up pads.  I’ll bring the books on the summer reading list to show them, do some booktalks, and tell the kids that the actual book lists will be here “soon.”  And if anyone asks about what prizes we’ll be giving out this summer, I’ll just try to change the subject.

We’ve been watching our funds dwindle before our eyes over the last few months, and some days it gets damned depressing.  We’re running low on pens, and pencils, and forms … and just how translucent is toilet paper supposed to be, anyway???

I feel the pinch as a young adult librarian when it comes to my programs.  I used to be reimbursed out of petty cash when I bought refreshments for my weekly teen advisory group meetings.  But then the branch funds dwindled, and if it came to a choice between Doritos and juice boxes and something else for the branch, I knew that I would just have to supply the refreshments myself from now on.  It’s not a major expense, but as a weekly program it does add up.

Then there’s the summer reading club planning.  We used to get a bunch of small prizes leading up to one big prize that we could raffle off.  As the years passed, the bunch of small prizes turned into a few small prizes.  Now this year there are no small prizes at all.   Each library in our system will get one (or possibly two or three) “big” prizes that we can raffle off to the teens in our summer reading club.  Which is all very well and good, but I would rather have at least something that every kid could definitely earn, rather than dangling a prize over their heads that they MIGHT get.  Wasn’t that a plot point of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?  Maybe that’s the only part of the book that I remember.  Or perhaps I’m thinking of another book altogether.

So now I’m going through my office and sorting through the freebies and leftover prizes from previous summers to try to figure out some kind of a progressive prize system.  One of my major sources of summer reading prize supplements was always the bag of free stuff that I picked up from the New York Comic Con.  But unfortunately, they’ve had a very inconsistent schedule over the last few years, and now they’re going to be joining with the New York Anime Festival AND they won’t be held again until October.  Which means that they will do me no good at all this summer, unfortunately.

Well, I did have one small epiphany, at least.  In trying to figure out what prize supplies I had, I realized that I had a small surplus of one thing.  I’ve been having an anime program for the last several months.  And every month when Operation Anime sends me my new DVD, they put a bunch of promotional postcards for different anime series in the envelope.  So okay, this summer every teen who reads one book will get to pick one of the anime postcards.  It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Next week I’ll be attending a meeting that is supposed to give us an overview of the 2010 summer reading club plan.  Except “overview” isn’t a hip enough term, apparently, so this will be a “FAQ” meeting, instead.  One of my most frequently asked questions about our summer reading club program goes something like this:

Why is the number of registrants so important?  Why are we told every year that our registration numbers should increase by X% over the previous year, while holding steady would be just fine, thank you very much, because what’s really important is that KIDS AND TEENS ARE ACTUALLY READING.  But that isn’t the priority at all — the priority is that this year we need to show increases over our own statistics from last year, and our branch should do better than the other branches, and our network should do better than the other networks.  This year our network is supposed to show a 12% increase in registrations from last year.  Why and how?  Did we get a 12% population increase?  You know, even those OTHER public library systems, the ones that just get the attendance rolls from their local schools and enter every student into the library’s summer reading club, would pretty much hold steady in their registration numbers every year.  I mean, unless they start counting imaginary friends, or something.

Okay, technically that’s more than one question, but you get the idea.

And speaking of which, our network manager has asked our site manager to brainstorm with us about how we can improve our circulation statistics, which have recently dropped by a precipitous 15%.  I have several theories as to why our circulation stats are down:

  • It is easier to steal materials than check them out.  Especially with zero security in place.
  • Our less wealthy patrons (many of whom are unemployed now) have trouble paying off their fines, and we can’t clear those fines with the freedom that we used to have,  so these patrons stop checking out stuff altogether.
  • Our more wealthy patrons are getting sick of our inability to find materials that are supposed to be on the shelf, the increasingly long waits for reserves, and the incorrect messages they’ve been getting from the Millennium system.  Of course, ALL of our patrons are upset about these issues, but our wealthier pations have cars, which means they have more options.  It means that they are giving up on our library system and instead defecting to the library system in the county north of us.  I believe this for two reasons: because I’ve had several patrons tell me this to my face, and because the three branches in our network that had a drop in their circulation statistics are the three northernmost branches in our network.
  • Many of our patrons (perhaps most of our patrons?) use our library for things that don’t affect our circulation statistics.  They come in to use our computers, to use our wi-fi connection, to read the newspapers, to pick up tax forms, and to ask us for printouts of information from the internet.  The last category has become more and more prevalent lately.  Someone asks for information on a topic, and either they cut me off right away and clarify that they want the information from the internet and NOT FROM A BOOK, or they don’t tell me right away and when I find a book for them they look at me in an angry/upset/disappointed way and say that they don’t want it.  “Can’t you just get it for me on the computer instead?” Their reasons, when given, range from “I only need a couple of pages” to “I don’t want to read a whole book” to “I owe money on my library card and I can’t check anything out.”  I can’t even count how many of our patrons spend hours on end at our library every day (children and teens from school dismissal time until nearly closing and adults ALL FRIGGING DAY) and never check out a single item.

These ideas MIGHT explain why our statistics have dropped, but we’re supposed to be thinking of ways to drive those stats back up.  One suggestion was to strongly encourage patrons who visit the library for classes and programs to check out materials as they leave.  I already do this in the programs and classes that I run, but I often come up against the same problems I mentioned above.  Specifically, those would be a lack of interest (they enjoyed the booktalk / craft program / whatever, but not enough to actually check out a book) or a lack of funds (they owe more money on their cards than I am allowed to clear, so they can’t check anything out).

I dunno.  We’re still working on the brainstorming process.  Maybe we could put up a big sign by the front door that says “Please check out our books instead of stealing them”.  Or perhaps we could compromise and say “Check out one item, get one free.”