The Impact of Libraries on Young Adults: Toward a Critical Research Agenda

By Kafi D. Kumasi, Advisory Board Member, Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults

One of the primary reasons for conducting research on any subject is to help administrators and policy-makers make informed decisions about resource allocation. Conducting research on the impact of libraries on young adults can yield data that helps decision-makers better understand where and how to allocate resources to support library services for young adults. Readers who are interested in identifying the various areas of research that might generate this kind of data should read the YALSA Research Agenda 20122016, which outlines a national research agenda on libraries, teens, and young adults.1 This document expands upon an earlier work by Walter, which focused more on the need for historical research outlining how libraries have served teens and young adults throughout various historical periods.2 These documents outline several areas for future research including, but not limited to, research on:

  • Best practices in library services to young adults, including staffing levels, budgets, collection, programs, etc.
  • The role of young adult library services within the overall library program and/or its impact on communities.
  • Library programs for young adults and their impact on literacy skills and development.
  • The emergence of library services for teens and young adults in particular periods of U.S. history.
  • The various social, political, and economic forces that have caused library services for teens to receive greater or lesser support than other historical time periods.

There is no doubt that we need a robust research agenda that can yield data showing how and why young adults use the libraries and the subsequent benefits on their literacy development and life success. However, is this research agenda enough?

I would argue that researchers need to expand the agenda to include criticality–that is, to show the potential for libraries to become sites for critical youth participation. A critical orientation to the research agenda might position libraries as sites whereby youth engage in critical inquiry activities that bring to the foreground issues of social justice and human equality. From a research standpoint, library scholars might document the various ways libraries and librarians can support critical literacy activities among young adults. Critical literacy has to do with an ability to challenge the status quo of the social order and identify meaningful action to help shift power imbalances. This approach to research focuses on the real-life experiences of young adults as a place to begin inquiry. It also positions young adults as capable researchers who can use their real-world experiences as a place to generate powerful and purposeful learning experiences where they serve as the professional researcher who poses the question, gathers resources, analyzes data, and educates their communities.3, 4

In order to carry out this kind of research, library scholars need to understand some of the basic principles and methodologies associated with critical research. In short, critical research looks at whom and what is being privileged or marginalized in various social contexts and tries to disrupt asymmetrical power relations through direct social action and/or consciousness-raising. Critical research is rooted in critical theory, coined by the philosophers of the Frankfurt School in the 1930s. Critical theory challenged the biased nature of all knowledge, specifically knowledge that was transmitted via dominant institutions such as schools and the media.5

Typically, critical scholars employ action research and other research methods that take place in natural settings whereby the researcher often takes on a role as a participant and an observer in the research site. What better age group might library scholars target to take on this kind of critically oriented, action-driven research than young adults? Through this kind of collaborative, authentic research, young adults can develop a range of skills that translate into traditional academic literacies. Morrell has shown in his research with California students that allowing youth to investigate issues in their community can transfer into mainstream literacies sanctioned in schools.6 ‘ Some potential areas of research that examine the impact of libraries on young adults from a critical perspective might include research on:

  • The perceptions and experiences of young adults in libraries, particularly those from historically underrepresented cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
  • The development of critical literacy practices among young adults through library-based programs and instructional activities.
  • The digital divide and its implications for young adult library services.
  • Librarians’ belief systems about urban youth and their conceptions of literacy learning among young adults.

In conclusion, library research on young adults should not only aim to provide data that helps decision-makers keep library doors open for young adults and save the jobs of teen services librarians. It can and should do much more.’  It should be exciting research that people want to read. It should be research that educators and policy-makers point to as the gold standard for what libraries can do for young adults. It should be the engine behind new and innovative library services for teens. It should help young adults understand that the library is more than a place to consume information, but a place where new knowledge can be created with the help of caring, skilled young adult librarians. This is one scholar’s vision for using the research agenda to illustrate the impact of libraries on young adults. What is your vision?


  1. Young Adult Library Services Association, YALSA Research Agenda 2012—2016, (2011),
  2. Virginia V. Walter, “Public Library Service to Children and Teens:’ A Research Agenda,”’ Library Trends 51 no. 4 (2003): 571-590.
  3. Kafi D. Kumasi, “Cultural Inquiry: A Framework for Engaging Youth of Color in the Library,” Wayne State School of Library and Information Science Faculty Research Publications, Paper 2 (2010),
  4. Kafi D.Kumasi, “Critical Inquiry: Library Media Specialists as Change Agents.” Wayne State School of Library and Information Science Faculty Research Publications, Paper 42 (2007),
  5. Ernest Morrell, “Critical Research and the Future of Literacy Education.’ Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy‘ 53, no. 2 (2009): 96-104.
  6. Ernest Morrell, Becoming Critical Researchers (New York: Peter Lang, 2004).

Kafi D. Kumasi, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the School of Library and Information at Wayne State University. Her research interests include school library media, urban libraries and education, multicultural education, issues and trends in children’s and young adult literature, and social and cultural approaches to adolescent literacy.

This entry was posted in Volume 2 Number 1: November 2011, Volume 2 of the Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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