How a YA book prompted some social action

January 16th 2014

The following post is the true story of how one YA novel prompted me to unleash my frustrations about my library’s crappy YA collection development to my library administrators, county commissioners and state senator (and surprisingly, only my state senator responded).

It all started when I wanted to read In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters, a critically-acclaimed YA novel that is nominated for a Morris Award, and unsurprisingly, my poorly-funded county library system did not have the book. Now, you might be asking yourself, why is this a problem? Can’t you just get the book from interlibrary loan? Or buy it? Sure. But if I bought every book my library doesn’t have, I’d be broke. Also, my county library has an asinine policy of not ILL’ing (yes, I use that as a verb) books published within the year and ITSOB was published in April 2013. So not only does my library not have this Booklist starred-review book, and probably isn’t going to buy it anytime soon since it is January 2014 already, but they won’t necessary get it for me because it’s not a year old! Can you feel my frustration bubbling because even as I type this, I’m getting angry. (Long story short, they did ILL it for me and I read it and loved it.)

I started to think if my county library (which consists of 2 branches) doesn’t have In the Shadow of Blackbirds, what other awesome YA novels are they missing? Because every time I check the shelves (which is once a week), I am sorely disappointed at my options. So one day, I spent a good hour on their catalog checking to see if they at least had the Printz winners and honors books. And the results were disappointing.

The county library has 2 copies of the 2013 Printz winner In Darkness by Nick Lake, but is missing 2 of the 4 honors books for the same year. The county does not own the 2012 Printz winner, Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley, at all and has only 1 of the 4 honors books. For 2011, the county has the Printz winner but we’re missing 3 of the 4 honor books. For 2010, the county has have the Printz winner but we’re missing 2 of the 4 honors books.
And it only gets worse from there. The county library doesn’t have any of Maureen Johnson’s newest books. I mean none. The last MJ book they bought was from 2006! No Suite Scarlett. No Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes. No The Name of the Star. The library doesn’t have anything by Holly Black past White Cat! And we’re still missing the second novel in Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Boys. And don’t even get me started on authors such as Rainbow Rowell and Andrew Smith.
In a furor, I wrote an email to library administration detailing these egregious offenses. I know money is tight, but how is the money being spent? How are books being identified for the YA collection? Is whoever doing the ordering knowledgeable in YA collection development? I wasn’t just spouting off a bunch of complaints, I also volunteered my help.
I have a master’s degree in library science. Before having my sons, I worked for two years as a YA librarian in a NJ public library. Unlike Pennsylvania (apparently), NJ requires librarians to have a master’s degree. NJ libraries also get their funding through a large local tax base, which isn’t true for PA. My county library system gets its funding from the state who slashed the library budget by $20 million during the last few years. And, a few years ago, a proposition for additional tax money to go directly to our library was voted down by residents. So there’s that, too.
My county library is trying to do the best with the financial resources its got, which isn’t much. I’ve learned that only one person does the book ordering for our county system. One woman who orders children’s, teen and adult fiction for a county servicing 40K people. How can she be expected to know what to order? But that’s a problem in itself. If you’re on a tight budget, you should be doing the best with the funding available and that means prioritizing.
Just last week, I received a phone call from my state senator’s office wanting to know if I’d like to participate in a live town-hall meeting on the phone. Would I? I stayed on the line and volunteered to ask a question. I chose to address the issue of my county library’s poor funding and inadequate resources. To my relief, the state senator seemed interested. Later that afternoon, an aide from her office called me to discuss the issue further. For all I know the woman was humoring me, but for those 20 minutes, she listened and responded to my concerns and it felt good, cathartic even. Maybe what I said will make a difference when the senator votes, maybe not.
As it turns out, I am not the only frustrated county resident. Some of my friends are willing to purchase non-resident library cards in neighboring states so they can use their libraries. Interestingly, it was this notion that surprised the senator’s aide. That people would be willing to pay for services in another state. Why not pay for those services here in our county?But that’s up to voters and last time, county voters didn’t want to pay more money for the library. Even if that money equated to $35 per household per year.
Some of those same friends wrote to the senator and got phone calls as well. I can only hope when the library funding is discussed in budget hearings, my state senator voices support. Because as much as I love buying books to support my fellow authors, I’m also a librarian who believes in checking out books to support the library. And that’s the point. I’m for my library. I’m critical because I care. I will always support my library even when I may be frustrated with the lack of selection. (I donate what I can from my SLJ books, but I can’t do this alone). I want it to be the best library it can be and that won’t happen without adequate funding.
Are you in a town, county, state without adequate library funding and support? What do you do to help your library? What can you suggest?


2 comments on “How a YA book prompted some social action

  1. Leandra Wallace

    I feel you! My library’s YA/MG section consists of three small endcap bookcases- that’s it! I wish I could waltz in and slap a bunch of money on the counter and say- lets fix this. It was diasppointing when I moved up here, b/c I came from a library system that was pretty awesome.

  2. Jill

    I’ve heard of public libraries issuing stylized receipts as folks check things out, showing approx. what they would’ve had to pay for items if they’d bought them instead of borrowing them. Faced with easily a $100 or more “bill” on each visit, people might be more inclined to support library funding, at, say $35 per capita per year. I don’t know if any such programs had documented successes, but it’s an intriguing idea.

    Thanks for fighting the good fight!

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