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November 21, 2014

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A Voice for Teens: Up Close with Youth Librarian Lindsey Tomsu

“The reason why my programming has become so successful is because I have given a voice to my teens and have made them an integral part of [it],” says Library Journal  Mover & Shaker Lindsey Tomsu, new youth librarian and teen club advisor extraordinaire at La Vista Public Library (NE).

Since joining the staff in 2009, Tomsu’s tireless enthusiasm and rapport with young people in her community has helped teen attendance and engagement dramatically soar, and has earned the library several grants to fund additional special programming

In this fourth of a dozen planned interviews with the youth services librarians named as Mover & Shakers this year, Tomsu shares with SLJ her top teen book picks, her dealings with Dewey, her inspirations and passions, why teens matter so much, and her views on the future of youth services.

Tomsu Group Shot 1 A Voice for Teens: Up Close with Youth Librarian Lindsey Tomsu

Lindsey Tomsu (front and center) with the Teen Advisory Board who nominated her for LJ ‘s Movers & Shakers. Back row: Kristen Schmitt, Sarah Kreber, Haley Christensen, Patrick “Pierre” Christensen, Marissa Homan. Middle row: Keyahna Wood, Abby Goss, Huyen-Yen Hoang, Elliot Dritt, Katie Randles, Katie Kocanda, Kayla Harbour, Audi Blann. Front row: Sarah Goss, Peyton Banks, Sam Ramler, Becca Russell, Emily Jones, Eric Pham. Photo credit: Mitch Beaumont.

When did you know library science was the right choice for you?
I came to it in a roundabout way. I applied to Bellevue University for my accounting degree. When I took my first class, I realized, ‘No, this isn’t what I want to do.’ I ended up getting degrees in sociology and philosophy. I did a lot of independent study classes on youth development, play theory, and youth literature. When I graduated I did not get a [clinical laboratory science] internship…so I [found] an editing position locally; I then decided to go back to school for an English degree, the online program at the University of Illinois at Springfield. I concentrated on the unique combination of youth and Gothic literature. All my friends starting saying, ‘Why aren’t you a librarian? You read a lot.’  I decided I would apply for the MLIS at San Jose State University and focus on youth services.

Why youth services?
My fiancé (who is a YA librarian) would say it is because I get mistaken for a teen. There have been numerous times that a patron walks into a program to complain about the noise, looks right past me, and then asks the oldest (or tallest) teen there, ‘Who’s in charge?’ I have had new teens mistake me for ‘one of us’ at a program. I think I gravitated more toward teen services because I am more comfortable around that age group than children. For a lot of librarians, it is the other way around.

What were you like as a teenager? What were your interests?
I was quiet. I was one of those students who didn’t realize until college the reason they hated high school was because they were bored to death. I think that’s why I spent a lot of my study halls as a teaching assistant and I took electives that were self-study paced.

What was I into as a teen? The main thing that comes to mind is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I was obsessed. I was so well-known for my level of fandom that people I didn’t know would call me ‘that Buffy girl’ and would take bets on what Buffy shirt I would be wearing each day of the week. My room was plastered with pictures—every inch of space was taken up even the ceiling—and memorabilia.

The other thing I was into a lot was comic books. The summer before fourth grade I went with [my grandmother] to garage sale after garage sale. At one, [she] told me to look at the man’s comic books as one whole side of his driveway was taken up by boxes. We went back the next day and bought his entire collection. I like to say that I discovered manga way earlier than everyone else, as I started reading my favorite comic book of all time, Ninja High School, in 1992. Other favorites (then and now) include the 1994 runs of Catwoman and Robin, Love Hina, Infinity Inc., Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld, Chew, Groo, Battle Royale, and all the original EC Comics.

My main hobbies as a teen were reading and writing. I also I read a lot of nonfiction. Even though I am not that old, there still really wasn’t a YA genre around when I was a teen. I think it literally started to emerge right when I graduated from high school. I actually liked a lot of classic literature. My favorite books of all time are Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie.

How have your interests changed over the years?
I have gotten more into gaming as an adult. I love Arkham Horror and nothing compares to turning a game that is so complex it can take six hours to play into a real life version with 20-plus teens. Other games my teens and I really like include Gloom (an Addams Family-esque card game where the goal is to have bad things happen to your family and good things happen to your opponents’ families) and A la Carte, a cute food cooking game that comes with actual pots.

My hobbies mainly now are reading. That’s all I will do with all my free time, whether it is a teen book, a graphic novel, or history information for my thesis. Also, I am now fully obsessed with Monster High. I first heard about the book months before it was published and then ran across the dolls. I fell in love with their unique style and message that being different was okay. I now buy everything Monster High. I am currently in the process of photo-chronicling my obsession for some of my teens. Once a few found out about my love of [the series], they all of a sudden were, ‘We love Monster High too!’

I am very picky about the adult literature I read—mainly steampunk/Victorian-era stuff like Gail Carriger’s “Parasol Protectorate” series (Little, Brown).

What is on your all-time “top books for teens” list?
One of my favorite YA authors of all time is L.J. Smith. I read Vampire Diaries (HarperCollins) when I was 11! However, my favorite of hers is the “Forbidden Game” trilogy (S & S). For younger kids, I really like the “Mallory” series (Carolrhoda) by Laurie Friedman. I like anything to do with zombies and I really enjoy the books published by Strange Chemistry, the YA imprint for Angry Robot. I love Derek Landy’s “Skulduggery Pleasant” books (HarperCollins) so much so I import them from the UK since only the first three were published here. I also read a lot of series books for fun and for my thesis research, my favorite series being the Penny Parker mysteries from Mildred Wirt Benson, the ‘original’ Carolyn Keene.

I spend a lot of time really thinking about what my teens will like when I do collection development. I know exactly what books will appeal to Haley (action) or Katie (romance) or Keyahna (graphic novels) or Sarah (‘brutal’ stories). I know Emily’s going to want the latest paranormal series and that Isaac would read anything with dragons. I think it is important to remember that each community is different and what will go out in one might not be popular in another. So I always feel weird about recommending top books. A prime example would be a book called MoshiMoshi Strawberry Kawaii (Walker) that we have in our gaming nonfiction category—think a Japanese Where’s Waldo but with a bean-shaped bunny. It is an insane search-and-find book that is probably not in many libraries. I also have a lot of Doctor Who fans, so I try to get cool Doctor Who books for the collection.

I am happy to see Rats Saw God (S & S) getting republished. I think that is a classic that teens need to be introduced to. A lesser promoted book I loved recently was The Hallowed Ones by Laura Bickle (Harcourt). As part of the YALSA YA Galley Group, my teens and I are being exposed to a lot of upcoming books we have to review, so those are the ones currently on my mind. Of some of those, my favorite upcoming titles for teens include Earth Girl (Pyr) by Janet Edwards, one of the best sci-fi for teens that I’ve ever read, The Nightmare Affair by Mindee Arnett (Tor), Eleanor & Park (St. Martin’s) by Rainbow Rowell, In the Shadow of Blackbirds (Abrams) by Cat Winter,  Openly Straight (Scholastic) by Bill Konigsberg, Maybe I Will (Luminis) by Laurie Gray, and The Testing (Houghton Harcourt) by Joelle Charbonneau, which many of my teens are calling the next Hunger Games.

My teens love participating in the YA Galley Group. We’ve gotten so many awesome upcoming books and I try to read them along with my teens so we can discuss them. And, as they write their reviews and make their recommendations, I can help them learn how to dig deeper into their critiques. It helps that I can read pretty fast so I can converse with a lot of teens about the different books that are coming in.

What were your programming goals when you started at your library?
I came into the middle of a pre-planned Summer Reading Program (SRP). [It] was really disappointing—it had only 79 teens participate and only held about one program a week. So for 2010, the first one I got to create myself, I completely re-vamped the entire thing—the reading logs, the incentives, etc., and ended up increasing the participation by nearly 600% (79 teens to 474 teens).

It was after that successful summer that I decided in November 2010 I would launch the Teen Advisory Board (TAB). I pulled out the names of the 15 teens that were coming to everything. I then wrote a letter about the intention of TAB, what it would do, that it would count as volunteer hours, that there would be snacks, and let it be known that I wanted their input on what the library does for them. When the first meeting occurred, every single person I sent a letter to attended, and most of them have stuck around over the past two years. And, of course, as the SRP has gotten bigger and bigger with each year, we’ve recruited more teens to the TAB and the overall teen program.

For 2011, we won our first YALSA/Dollar General Teen SRP grant of $1,000 and we went from 474 teens to 1,071 teens. My TAB planned its own theme (“A Supernaturally Spooky Summer”) and, in order to get the grant again, helped me plan the entire summer months before in January 2012. We were awarded a second SRP grant and increased the participation from 1,071 to 1,433 teens.

We also have received two Nebraska Library Commission Youth Excellence grants—one of $800 to start our Arkham Horror Gaming Club (2011-2012) and one of nearly $2,000 to buy the technology needed for our new Teen Media Club (2012-2013); we’ll be creating digital content. We also received a 2012 YALSA/Dollar General Teen Read Week grant in October 2012 to turn Arkham Horror into a life-sized version. The TAB was appointed as a new YA Galley Group for YALSA in 2012, one of a number of who not only get to review teen books for publishers before they are published but they are also responsible for picking the 20 finalists for Teen Read Week’s contest to pick the Teens Top 10 books.

Chalk A Voice for Teens: Up Close with Youth Librarian Lindsey Tomsu

Members of La Vista’s TAB pose with their video-game inspired chalk graffiti mural, designed to promote the 2012 Summer Reading Program. L to R: Patrick “Pierre” Christensen, Mary Bragg, Haley Christensen, Sarah Kreber (sitting), Kayla Harbour, Huyen-Yen Hoang, Keyahna Wood, Zip DeLong.

What’s been the key to your success?
My own philosophy is be respectful, be honest, be fun, and never turn anyone away.

I wanted to create a program that was fun and would get teens in the library in the first place. Obviously when I started my job and saw the lackluster statistics for the summer I knew something needed to be changed. So for that first summer of my own (2010) I really changed things up. I turned the reading logs into a Blackout Bingo, I gave incentives for completing cards and coming to programs, and I increased the number of programs per week from one to four or more.

Ever since then, the success of the teen programs has all been in part to my teens. My teens have been integral in planning their activities. I typically don’t plan anything for them that they haven’t approved first. Having direct say in what goes on gives them a sense of the library program really being for them and they have fun, talk it up to friends, and bring more and more teens into the program. That is how we’ve ended up with innovative and unique programs, such as the Pool Noodle Kendo Club, Bacon Club, Teen Storytime, and Random Club.

These successful programs all started as ideas of my teens—some ideas that they thought were too ‘out there’ to be in a library but I made them happen. I am also honest with them in regards to our budgets. That is why they have put such an effort into helping plan programs in advance to get additional grant funding to hopefully attract more teens and keep growing the program.

Every year my TAB keeps coming up with more ideas to make the upcoming school year or SRP even bigger and better than the previous years’ and they’ve accomplished a lot in the past three years that I do honestly believe one day they will achieve their overall TAB goal—world domination.

[And] you need to be comfortable around teens or they are going to sense your hesitant attitude and not feel comfortable or welcome around you. A teen librarian needs to actually like and love working with teens in order to be successful. You need to not only plan fun programs for them but be fun with them as well. I think my teens love that about me—I don’t just say, ‘Here’s our craft for today. Now go make one.’ I actually spend most of the programs doing the activity with them and taking photos.

Lastly, while my teen program is technically open to tweens and teens fifth grade and up, I don’t turn anyone away. If there is a younger sibling who wants to participate, as long as they are able to do so they can. My youngest Arkham player is nine. One of my teens, Audi, has been at the library longer than me and she is 21. I also offer a lot more programs for teens compared to some of the other area libraries and so many of my teens have invited friends from other cities. I don’t turn away a teen who wants to have fun just because they don’t have a library card. I refuse to do that.

What are some strategies you use when applying for grants?
My biggest piece of advice is to talk to your teens about your grant ideas. When I introduced them to Arkham Horror at our first TAB lock-in and they liked the game, I told them about the Youth Grant and asked if that was something they wanted me to do. They said yes. The following year when the grant came around again, I asked them for ideas and they [asked to make] a media club a reality. They had major input into the two SRP grants and the TRW grant as well. I think we did well on the grants because we were able to include a lot of details. If you can, show a grant committee what you want to accomplish instead of just generalized ideas. Give specifics.

Back in 2011, your TAB revamped La Vista’s teen nonfiction area to dump Dewey in favor of subject classification. Does Dewey still have relevance for you?
I have never gotten a complaint from a patron about the new system. The resistance we experienced was from other librarians. We knew such a change would be a daunting task so we made sure that we were solely in charge of the project. Luckily, I have a director who is open to change. She agreed with my teens and said that it didn’t matter what we’ve always done as a library, it didn’t matter what the staff members wanted, what mattered was what the patrons wanted.

Within the first month we had more books circulate than in the entire previous year. We saw a nearly 45 percent increase in circulation. Surprisingly, it wasn’t that hard to make the change. My teens do not disvalue Dewey; they acknowledge the importance of it. But they browse. They want to know that if they have a science paper they can go to the science section, see a topic that appeals to them, and then find all the books right there. Their biggest complaint was that, under the Dewey system, books in our collection on the same topic ended up being separated so that they weren’t even in the same general shelf area. They much prefer the new method.

Who do you collaborate with the most? Does that come naturally to you?
I’ve actually done the most with Gordon Wyant at the Bellevue Public Library, doing joint programs for both our groups of teens. Our biggest event was when we won a visit from author Kimberly Pauley of Sucks to Be Me (Mirrorstone). She went to Bellevue on Friday afternoon during their craft day when the teens were making little felt bats (based on a cute cartoon symbol in her books) and the teens loved it because she was actually hanging out with them and making bats, too. On Saturday she came to La Vista, where she did a day-long program. She talked about writing her books, helped the teens learn how to draft their own stories, did autographs, and gave out prizes.

I think collaboration really depends on the individual people and the libraries involved. Gordon and I clearly work well together because we are both teen librarians. His teens love me, my teens love him. Sometimes collaboration is hard, though. We have a great group of local teen librarians that work in public libraries and school libraries that want to work together but schedules, strict school rules about outside visitors, and such things sometimes put a chink into those plans.

What is next for you and why?
In my library every summer we keep getting bigger and bigger, and every school year the teens keep adding their own inventive programs to our roster of ‘core’ programs. Our two big projects we are working on now are Media Club and the TAB Summer Internship Program.

The idea for Media Club came about in the summer of 2012 when one of my teens, Peyton Banks, declared to all the girls that he was a really good dancer, so one girl challenged him to prove it. Another girl decided to record him. The TABbler Teens’ YouTube channel was born. [In] Media Club, they are in charge of making a website and creating other digital content, [including] dinosaur book trailers (plastic dinosaurs acting out scenes from books), video blogs of teen programming showing how crazy and fun the library is, special event videos like ‘The 25 Days of TAB’ or panel discussions (Batman vs. Superman, Tennant vs. Smith) on pop culture, and a 15-minute sketch show.

The TAB Summer Internship Program is another incentive program I am starting this summer. It started out as an idea of a reward to one member who had shown an interest in librarianship. I approached Sarah Kreber and she jumped at it. I applied for the YALSA/Dollar General Teen SRP Intern grant of $1,000 and an opportunity came along with the Nebraska Library Commission’s 21st Century Librarian Internship grant for a second teen, Elliot Dritt. My idea was to immerse these two teens into all areas of librarianship for 10 weeks. I didn’t just want teen interns to help me with busy work or things that I didn’t have time for like sorting reading logs. I envisioned this new pilot internship program as a way to give back (both financially and educationally) to TAB members who had devoted so much time already to the teen program and the library. Eight hours every Tuesday and Thursday of the summer they [will] learn about different aspects of librarianship (circulation, collection development, reference, reader’s advisory, programming, cataloging, budgeting) and help me run the teen programs. Sadly, we weren’t awarded the YALSA grant and we were only awarded $500 from the NLC…[but] now they are both doing an unpaid internship and sharing a $500 budget. You know the teens are excited when they want to work with you all summer long and don’t care about money! They really want the experience.

What’s on your career wish list? What would you love to do that you haven’t done yet?
I would like to turn my series book research into not only a book but a Ph.D. as well. I would also like to get a master’s in pop culture, which is directly related to my thesis research. Secondly, I really would like to teach future librarians. Ideally, I would prefer to teach in an online program since my last two degrees were from online programs and I feel I really understand how to give students the most out of such a learning environment. I would love to teach MLIS courses dealing with teen materials and programming and the history of youth literature. My dream course would be exposing students to my thesis research—the importance of series books to youth literature and American history.

Lastly, while I love my teens and hope to work with teens for many years to come, my ideal librarian “dream” job would actually be the Curator of the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature at the University of Florida, or a position similar to that at another special library’s youth literature repository. My research passion is the history of series books and I collect antique youth books, so a position as a curator of such a collection would be awesome.

What was your reaction to being named a Mover & Shaker?
Haley Christensen, TAB president, organized the whole effort to nominate me. My teens like to joke, ‘We can now say we knew you before you were famous!’

What do you think is the state of teen services right now?
The big state of teen services that many teen librarians struggle with together seems to be a story of budgetary shortfalls. Without adequate funding, teen librarians are forced into depending on grant funds. I truly feel that the reason why I have been able to get so many teens into my program is because of the number of grants I’ve been awarded. I have brought in more grant funds than the teen department has had in actual budget. When these grant funds are denied or unavailable, we scrabble around trying to do the best we can with little or nothing. Teen librarians are most notorious for often spending their own money to make events and programming happen.

Teens are stuck in a place where they are expected to act as adults, yet are treated as children. [So] teen librarians often find themselves still fighting an uphill battle to even legitimize their patrons’ existence and needs. I believe the biggest challenge is to reverse these negative stereotypes that adults have toward teens and striving to get teens into the library and being a positive influence on their lives.

What do you think teen services should look like going forward?
For me, it is all about the teen participation. You need to get out there and start a Teen Advisory Board and get those teens involved. We’ve done a lot of amazing things and I believe the growth and success of the program is mainly due to their input and participation. Making your teens their own advocates is one of the most important things you can do as a teen librarian.

Karyn M. Peterson About Karyn M. Peterson

Karyn M. Peterson (kpeterson@mediasourceinc.com) is a former News Editor ofSLJ.

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