The Life of a Teen Librarian


Some really good questions–I’ll take them slightly out of order. 

1) What makes a book “for my library”?  With my central selection (selecting new YA fiction for all eight branches in the county) my basic premises are two.  First, I try to get a basic foundation of what to my mind consists of books that every library “should” have.  That means all the big buzzy books, along with as many of the highly praised books as I can afford.  I’m looking for starred reviews, books that look to be award contenders, books with big marketing pushes (Baker and Taylor gives me numbers on how many copies they’ve ordered for each region of the country, so I look at that to see how popular they and the publishers think an item is going to be).  To put it in terms of VOYA scores (because I love them), I’m looking for books that rank 4Q or 5Q, and 4P or 5P, hopefully in some combination.  I try to avoid books that score 1Q or 2Q unless they are absolutely no-brainer hits, but I’m a little more lenient on 2P books because often these are niche items, as long as they have high Q scores.  Obviously if a book isn’t reviewed by VOYA, I have to use my own judgement based on the review and other information as to what those scores would look like.

The second consideration is the more geographically specific concerns of my population.  Solano is a bit of a strange county, in that the biggest city, Vallejo, where I work and live, is a major outlier from the rest of the county.  Vallejo is, as you say, economically and ethnically (and, concomittantly, politically) diverse, but the rest of the county is much less so.  So I have to do a bit of a balancing act in terms of purchasing books that appeal to Vallejo’s strong Black and Filipino populations–Urban novels, books published by Kimani Tru–as well as more “conservative” books for some of our outlying communities.  Fortunately for me, we have a floating collection, so I don’t have to make the decisions about which specific branch each book ends up at–I just have to make sure to buy at least some books for each population.

2) Readers’ Advisory.  Honestly, I find that the most important aspect of readers’ advisory for me is display.  I do a fair amount of working with individual teens, but it is such a tiny percentage of the items checked out that I think my time is better spent working on displays.  My most effective one is one that you already know about (I believe you used it as an example in one of your books): my Teen Picks display.  I give my teen customers a chance to recommend books to their fellow teens, then I type up their reviews, round up the books and display the two together in a shelf of 20 or so Teen Picks.  This has been widely popular for about three years now.  Other than that, I do New Books displays, displays for things like Teen Read Week, and just as much face out displaying of books as I can fit on the shelves.

When it comes to specific teens, I’m nowhere near the best booktalker in the world, since I often can’t remember the plots very well, but what I like to do is to walk into the YA section with a teen and start pulling books off the shelf that I’ve read recently or been hearing about.  I basically never get a satisfactory answer to that perennially recommended question “what was the last good book you read?” – so instead I start with something I love and try to read the teen’s face as they look over the cover and flap information, then hone the next book to their responses.  I’m sure there are better approaches, but I’ve had some success with this.

3) Formatting. Honestly, I really have no idea how formatting and trim affect teen response.  When I have two editions of a book on the shelf, I generally offer both to the teen, but I don’t think I’ve ever noticed a pattern to their responses.  In library school, I read quite a bit about the supposed teen preference for mass market paperbacks, but I don’t think I’ve seen a ton of evidence in my own library to that effect, although the data would be skewed because our budget constraints make it so much more cost effective to buy hardbacks that we often only have the hardbound edition of a book.  So, I don’t think I can be of much help on that question.

4) Finally, your question about being a male librarian.  I have heard this question so often, and I have thought about it, but it still leaves me without much to say.  The problem is that even though I’m a man, my reading tastes track much more closely with the “typical” female: fiction over nonfiction; character over plot; emotion over adrenaline, etc.  So in a lot of ways, I think I prefer to work with my female customers, because I feel more comfortable knowing I can find them something they’ll love.  When I get a boy asking for a good mystery or “scary” book, I start to break out in a sweat a little bit.  One more piece of evidence for “biology is not destiny.”  I’m sure my customers themselves respond differently to me, as a man, than they do to my female colleagues, but I would never presume to make any sort of blanket statement about what those responses are, so I’m afraid I’m not a ton of help on this question either.

So, there you go – highly ancedotal, ambiguous answers to your four questions.  Hope I helped!

– Mark


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