Historical perspectives on youth advocacy librarianship

Youth advocacy has a long history in children’s and young adult library services, but it hasn’t always taken the forms we see today. These resources explore the historical roots of youth advocacy librarianship, from what has been named advocacy over time to what has developed into contemporarily defined advocacy practices.

Fine, J. R. (n.d.). YASD: A Narrative History From 1976 to 1992. Young Adult Library Services Association. Retrieved August 4, 2012, from http://www.ala.org/yalsa/aboutyalsa/yalsahandbook/yasdnarrative

Gottschalk, M. E. (n.d.). YALSA: History From 1992 to 2000. Young Adult Library Services Association. Retrieved August 4, 2012, from http://www.ala.org/yalsa/aboutyalsa/yalsahandbook/yalsahistory

Starr, C. (n.d.). Brief History of the Young Adult Services Division. Young Adult Library Services Association. Retrieved August 4, 2012, from http://www.ala.org/yalsa/aboutyalsa/history/briefhistory

These three online resources from ALA trace the history of YALSA from its founding in 1957 (as YASD) through 2000. For an overview of YALSA’s current mission and programs, visit their About page. YALSA represents the official institutional voice in youth advocacy librarianship, so it’s interesting to see what approaches they have prioritized and encouraged over time. Many of YASD/YALSA’s initiatives, such as the long-term struggle to keep the YASD publication Top of the News from being absorbed into the general ALA Bulletin, hinge on the concept of advocacy as related to the recognition of youth as a discrete user group with different needs. The YASD mission “to advocate, promote, and strengthen service to young adults as part of the continuum of total library service” (Fine) points to librarians’ desire to target youth populations for age-specific service and their belief that advocacy for youth library services could be synonymous with advocacy for youth.

Braverman, M. (1979). Work with Young People: The Evolution of a Concept. Youth, Society, and the Public Library (pp. 242–254). Chicago, IL: American Library Association.

This dated but still extremely useful book traces the history of public library services for youth with a particular focus on the social contexts and impacts of various trends. It’s invaluable as background for understanding more specific issues that arose during these time periods, and as an introduction to seminal figures in the advancement of youth services and youth advocacy librarianship over time.

Broderick, D. M., & Chelton, M. K. (1978). Editorial. Voice of Youth Advocates, 1(1), 1–2.

In their introductory editorial to the first issue of Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA), a magazine for young adult librarians, Broderick and Chelton cited the rise in youth-related social problems and at-risk behaviors (such as rising rates of teen pregnancy, institutionalization, homelessness, unemployment, and delinquency) as justification for more engaged youth librarianship and advocacy. This is a great primary source on a period that was a turning point in how youth advocacy librarianship was conceived, especially since Broderick and Chelton explicitly politicize the concept here, stating,

We cannot leave the field to the ultra-conservative groups who operate on the assumption that it is access to information that causes social ills. We must identify the social myths that keep us from serving young people and replace them with knowledge… The alternative is to remain victims of myths and social conditioning. (p. 2)

Edwards, M. A. (1969). The Fair Garden and the Swarm of Beasts: The Library and the Young Adult. New York: Hawthorn Books.

In her classic tract on young adults in the library, Edwards advocates passionately for the rights of young adults to use the library while at the same time revealing some of the limitations and cultural assumptions of youth advocacy at this time. She writes,

Such communities as we worked in were the danger spots in our cities. These people were a prey to every slogan—good or bad. If the government issued a stirring call for defense workers, they responded at once… If radicals ranted, they made the same unhesitating response. Libraries much teach these people to read and think. (p. 57)

Just a page later, though, she writes,

Too often a wide gulf lay between our librarians and the people they wished to serve…. These people had fine things to give us, too. They taught us much about courage and humor, strength and patience. (p. 58)

She was also a strong proponent of outreach, arguing that,

We must not be content to work only with people who happen to come to the library, excusing ourselves by saying it is hopeless to make readers of most people when often it is ourselves and our methods that are at fault. (p. 114)

Hannigan, J. A. (1996). A Feminist Analysis of the Voices for Advocacy in Young Adult Librarianship. Library Trends, 44(4), 851–874.

Hannigan uses a feminist theoretical framework to discuss historical issues of access and advocacy from a qualitative (what kind of relationships do varied patrons and nonpatrons have with the library?) rather than a quantitative (what are the representative numbers of groups utilizing the library?) viewpoint as she draws attention to the many female youth services librarians throughout the history of the profession whose work is notable in both feminist and LIS historical context. These librarians include:

  • Mabel Williams, worked as a young adult librarian at the NYPL from 1919 to 1951 and wrote that library services should “value personal identity” when formulating library service for youth
  • Margaret Scoggin, a generation past Mabel Williams, who created youth spaces and encouraged building youth participation (such as facilitating youth book reviewing) in library services
  • Jean Carolyn Roos , who worked in the Cleveland Public Library in the 1940s through the 60s, and involved the library in youth-centered organizational partnership to the point where she later drew criticism for “social work librarianship”
  • Margaret Edwards, who worked from 1932 to 1962 at the Enoch Pratt Public Library in Baltimore, and advocated (through her programming as well as her writing) for including African American youth in the library’s youth programming and services
  • Dorothy Broderick and Mary K. Chelton, who founded VOYA in 1978; of their contributions, Hannigan writes:

As subsequent historians and students of library history look back on young adult services in public libraries, this author suspects that they may identify Broderick and Chelton as marking the beginning of a new view of such services. This new view emphasized the individual and the perception of young adult literature as representative of, or a validation of, youth lifestyles, interests, and needs rather than emphasizing literary value and the social, moral, and educational benefits for those who encounter great literature. Broderick and Chelton, especially in VOYA, also emphasized the need to be knowledgeable about other disciplines and agencies that impact on youth rather than just encouraging cooperative ventures with them.

Jenkins, C. (2000). The History of Youth Services Librarianship. Libraries & Culture, 35(1), 103–140.

Jenkins traces the shift in youth services discourse from child protection to child advocacy, and describes early forms of advocacy in youth librarianship such as collaborating with social welfare agencies and pushing for the abolition of the age restrictions that were commonly placed on library access in the late 19th and early 20th century. Jenkins also notes the overall scarcity of research into the history of the “female-intensive child welfare professions that grew out of Progressive Era social activism” (p. 126) and positions further research into this area as its own form of advocacy.

Lukenbill, W. B. (2006). Helping Youth at Risk: An Overview of Reformist Movements in American Public Library Services to Youth. New Review of Children’s Literature and Librarianship, 12(2), 197–213.

Lukenbill argues that many of the social welfare professions of the Progressive Era aimed not to empower but to quell those they served, to appease the lower and working classes and inculcate in them the values that would make them better and more docile workers.The article queries the way the “at-risk youth” label is used to categorize youth and impose reform programs, and traces the history of library-based and library-related youth advocacy through the lens of analyzing its application as a tool of social control.

Vandergrift, K. E. (1996). Female advocacy and harmonious voices: A history of public library services and publishing for children in the United States. Library Trends, 44(4), 683–708.

Vandegrift discusses the roles played by youth advocacy and feminism in the development of historically feminized professions of youth librarianship and children’s publishing in the U.S. She addresses the tensions between the assimilationist mission of early library services (“the integration of immigrants into American culture was a primary mission of most public libraries of the time”, p. 687) and librarians’ efforts to value children’s individuality and cultural uniqueness (“librarians worked aggressively to acquire children’s books in original languages from countries around the world”, p. 688), and between youth librarians’ historic role in censoring materials and their current position in intellectual freedom discourses.


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