I have wanted to create a Teen Topics collection for years, since I got my first school library job in 2016. During my brief return to public libraries in 2019-2020, I got to work with a similar collection. However, it was poorly promoted and managed by the system, and the youth services librarians had little control over the content. When I returned to school libraries in 2020, I knew I wanted to create this kind of collection at my new school. Took me a while to sort out budgets and backend stuff, but this month I finally got to launch it. So let’s walk through these collections: what they are, how they can be beneficial, and how I put mine together.
What is a Teen Topics collection? They are book collections–mostly nonfiction, but they can also include fiction and graphic novels–on topics teens may have interest in but may be uncomfortable or unsafe to check out. These collections allow anonymous access to materials.
Many libraries and library organizations call these collections Sensitive Topics or Tough Topics. I, however, chafe at those descriptors. There is nothing “sensitive” or “tough” about being queer or trans or questioning, having or not having sex, and menstruation, for example. I don’t like framing topics like these from the negative. A teenager may already feel ashamed or embarrassed over being unhoused or being bullied. Why would I want to make them feel even worse by starting with a deficit model? I want a teen to feel safe in my library, but especially in that collection.
I broke my collection down to three overarching categories: Topics, Identities, Experiences. “Topics” includes books on sex, consent, healthy dating and relationships, drugs, alcohol, mental health, menstruation, sexual assault recovery, and bullying. “Identities” includes books on gender identity and expression, disabilities, and queerness. “Experiences” includes memoirs, graphic novels, and fiction. I’ve heard from students that they also want books on social media, eating disorders, and body image. Unfortunately, a lot of the books on the market for young adults are unhealthy. For example, books on eating disorders can act as how-to guides, while books on body image often focus on weight loss and dieting. Social media books tend to be fearmongering or promote all-out bans on phones. Like with all books in this collection, and frankly with all books in my entire library, I want to find books that benefit my students instead of reinforcing negative or unhealthy behaviors and attitudes. I expect to continue to grow this collection over the years, so hopefully I can eventually find materials for my students.
Beyond print books, I also have a list of resources students can take. Mostly it includes hotlines and websites to visit if they’re in crisis. This is another area I plan to grow over time. We’ve never had anything like this on campus, so I’m trying to start small and ease students into it instead of overwhelming them with Everything All At Once. I also left suggestion cards so students can anonymously request topics or books for me to order.
The way I structured my collection, each book is catalogued normally, but with the addition of a Teen Topics tag in the record. Each book has a barcode as well as a bookmark with a corresponding barcode. To check out a book, a student simply puts the bookmark in the locked checkout box at the collection location. Once a week, I go through the box and run the bookmark barcodes through the system and check out those materials to an anonymous student account I created. If a student takes a book without leaving the bookmark, I’m not stressing over it. And if a student never returns it, fine. I have set aside part of my budget for replacements. For additional privacy, I made up a bunch of privacy covers they can borrow or keep. These were inspired by librarian Kelsey Bogan’s tweet. While Bogan used Canva to create the privacy covers, I just bought cheap double-sided wrapping paper and encased them in the same covers I use to cover my hardbacks.
To make the collection feel accessible and welcoming, I put up some colorful contact paper and used bright colors and fun fonts for the bookmarks, signage, and privacy colors. The collection is in a corner at the back of the stacks, in an area where students have the most privacy to browse. All books in my library can be checked out for a full term, with due dates scheduled to coincide with the start of a new term. The same is true of the Teen Topics books. There are several return areas in the library already, and they can be put in any of those areas. I have a main Returns Box at the Circulation Desk, as well as one out in front of the library and one in the stacks. Again, students can access any of these without interacting with one another or an adult.
This collection is very new, and I expect it to evolve over time as students begin to use it more. But so far it’s been well-received by both students and faculty/staff/administration. Several books have already been checked out, and I can tell the books are being looked at based on how much they move around the shelves every day. If you are able to put together a similar collection at your school or library, I highly encourage you to try.