The YALSA Research Agenda: Getting It Done

By Virginia A. Walter, Professor Emerita, University of California, Los Angeles

The YALSA National Research Agenda on Libraries, Teens, and Young Adults is an informative and inspirational document: informative because it succeeds in mapping the landscape of research in this broadly defined, expansive field; and inspirational because it teases any intellectually curious researcher with gaps in the research terrain that beg to be filled.

As an academic who has done research that could fit into all four priority areas identified in the research agenda, I found myself looking for ways that I might do some crossover work that integrated issues from one or more of these. Two approaches occurred to me, both with implications for methodology. First, feeling a little like the woman with a hammer for whom the whole world is a nail, I returned again and again to outcome evaluation as my preferred tool for tackling these questions. Second, I was reminded again of the value of involving young adults directly in the research process as participants and not just as subjects. I will discuss each of these issues briefly and then conclude by speculating about who might implement this research agenda most productively.

Outcome Evaluation

Outcome evaluation seeks to determine the change in skill, attitude, behavior, or status as a result on the participants as a result of a particular library program or service. We owe a big debt of gratitude to Eliza Dresang, Melissa Gross, and Leslie Edmonds Holt for their handbook, Dynamic Youth Services through Outcome-Based Planning and Evaluation, that explains so clearly how and why to use this tool in developing and assessing library services for young people.1

Let’s take a moment and look at each of the four priority areas from the research agenda and see how outcome evaluation might be applied.

The very title for Priority Area 1, “Impact of Libraries on Young Adults,” signals the need for better understanding of the outcomes of our work with teens. Research questions 2 and 4 in this priority area are particularly suitable for outcome evaluation. These questions ask us to identify and then document the ways that individual libraries and national initiatives such as YALSA’s Teen Read Week positively affect adolescent development, including literacy, work readiness, and twenty-first century learning skills.

An outcome-based approach to such a task would require that we first gather information that would enable us to do a kind of needs assessment. Call it market research. What are the gaps in adolescent development that libraries might reasonably address? What is an individual library or YALSA’s capacity for meeting the gap? My own experience working as a consultant is that the more time and effort spent on this phase of the process, the better the final result. However, any effort to do this kind of advance work pays off.

The second stage of the process is to use what has been learned in the information-gathering process to identify the desired outcomes for teens of some potential program or service. It is helpful to have some benchmark data as a starting point. Say we’ve decided, based on the high school’s current college admission rates and input from our Young Adult Advisory Council, that the desired outcome of a public library program would be something related to helping local teens prepare for college. We identify as a desired output that at least fifty students will participate in a college-readiness program and that at least forty of them (80%) will be admitted to one or more colleges.

Now we need to design the program that will achieve our outcome objective. We may have learned from talking to guidance counselors at the high school and to teens themselves that a big barrier for students in our community is knowing what financial aid is available. A second obstacle is the need to write a good application essay. To try to address these two issues, we create a pathfinder that leads students to both print and online resources about financial aid. The Youth Advisory Council helps us recruit several teens to be peer counselors, and the school’s guidance counselor gives them some training in using the various resources. We arrange times for the peer counselors to be available to work with high school juniors or beginning seniors. If we have funding, we hire tutors to work with students one-on-one with their admission essays. If we have no money, we beat the bushes of local colleges for work-study students or those wanting to do community service and do a little screening and training to be sure they can be helpful.

Evaluating a program such as the one I described would be straightforward. Keep track of the students who take part, set up a mechanism to learn whether or not they have been admitted to college, and then tabulate the results. If forty students are admitted, we have achieved our objectives. If the program did not result in forty students being admitted to college, we need to ask ourselves if that target was reasonable or if our program design needs to be retooled.

The same process can be followed for each of the other three priority areas. For Priority Area 2, “Young Adult Reading and Resources,” research question 3 addresses the need to identify best practices in developing collections, promoting reading, and defending teens’ access to a wide range of information. Outcome evaluation would enable librarians to measure the impact of their actions on their young adult users. Outcome evaluation could help to determine how book talks or graphic novel collections promote teen reading, for example.

Many of the research questions in Priority Area 3, “Information-Seeking Behaviors and Needs of Young Adults,” are already framed as quests for outcomes with their use of terms such as information needs, behaviors, and barriers. Many academics have already found this to be fertile ground for their research, and the results have been well-documented in the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Techology, as well as the two volumes on youth information-seeking behavior edited by Mary K. Chelton and Colleen Cool.2 The YALSA research agenda suggests many ways that this existing work can be expanded.

Priority Area 4 looks at the informal and formal learning environments in which young adults base their reading and information-seeking experiences. As with Priority Area 3, some good foundational scholarship has already been done. Twenty-first century learning skills have already been well-documented as desirable outcomes for young adults. The work that remains to be done is to identify the library services and programs that will help teens acquire those skills, and an outcome-based planning and evaluation process could begin to accomplish this.

Teens as Research Partners

Robin Moeller, Amy Pattee, and Angela Leeper posted a provocative response to the YALSA Research Agenda 2012—2016 in The Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults.3 They ask researchers to consider the role that teens can play in the research process. A similar issue is raised by Kafi D. Kumasi in her response in the same issue of JRLYA. She encourages scholars to frame their research within the context of critical theory, engaging teens as participants in critical inquiry.4 She suggests that teens, librarians, and scholars engage in action research, a kind of collaborative effort to uncover knowledge that is meaningful to all parties.

A book that I have found useful in addressing the concerns of Moeller, Pattee, Leeper, and Kumasi is Representing Youth: Methodological Issues in Critical Youth Sudies, edited by Amy L. Best.5 The contributors to this volume represent a variety of academic disciplines, but they all share a commitment to understanding the social construction of adolescence, to respecting the competency of young people, and to seeing them as active participants in their own lives. It is a perspective that could positively inform young adult librarianship as well as the scholarship that the YALSA research agenda seeks to encourage.

Who Will Do the Research?

My final words address the question of who will do this research. Even if every graduate program in library and information science harbored a professor devoted to the kind of work described in the YALSA research agenda, there would still be too few scholars to accomplish it all. Partnerships between academics and practitioners are essential. If nothing else, academics need practitioners to open the doors to those formal and informal learning environments in which they could conduct their research. Hopefully, some practitioners will take up the research cause and conduct their own studies, motivated by intellectual curiosity and the desire to improve their own services through approaches like outcome-based planning and evaluation.

Even as we increase the ranks of those engaged in research about young adults and libraries, we must also encourage those who do this work to publish their results. The findings from an outcome evaluation study that determined that teen book talkers were effective in promoting reading among their peers could be relevant to many other libraries. We tend to share these stories of “how we did it good” in conference programs or electronic discussion lists. Let’s think about how we can be more proactive about disseminating our good research stories in print (electronic and paper-based) as well.


  1. Eliza T. Dresang, Melissa Gross, and Leslie Edmonds Holt, Dynamic Youth Services through Outcome-Based Planning and Evaluation (Chicago: American Library Association, 2006).
  2. Mary K. Chelton and Colleen Cool, Youth Information-Seeking Behavior: Theories, Models, and Issues (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2004); Mary K. Chelton and Colleen Cool, Youth Information-Seeking Behavior II: Context, Theories, Models, and Issues (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2007).
  3. Robin Moeller, Amy Pattee, and Angela Leeper, “The Young Adult Voice in Research About Young Adults,” Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults (November 15, 2011).
  4. Kafi D. Kumasi, “The Impact of Libraries on Young Adults: Toward a Critical Research Agenda,” Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults (November 15, 2011).
  5. Amy L. Best, ed., Representing Youth: Methodological Issues in Critical Youth Studies (New York: New York Univ. Pr., 2007).

Virginia A. Walter holds a BA in world literature, an MLIS from the University of California, Berkeley, and a PhD in public administration from the University of Southern California. Before joining the faculty in what is now the Information Studies Department at UCLA in 1990, she had worked for more than twenty years in public libraries, most recently as children’s services coordinator at Los Angeles Public Library. She retired in June 2008 with the rank of professor emerita. She is the author of two books for young people, nine monographs, and more than thirty-five articles in scholarly and professional journals.

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