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Millennials and Libraries

September 12, 2014

Interesting research from Pew on Younger Americans and Public Libraries.

I’m pleased that they split the Millennial “generation” into three separate cohorts, rather than lumping Millennials together as 1980 and younger:

One “generation” is comprised of high schoolers (ages 16-17); another is college-aged (18-24), though many do not attend college; and a third generation is 25-29.

Also of interest, the number of similarities to older adults, including parallel numbers of books read, an overall increase of e-reading, the use of multiple devices… and the head-on-the-desk moment for me:

Some 43% report reading a book—in any format—on a daily basis, a rate similar to older adults. Overall, 88% of Americans under 30 read a book in the past year, compared with 79% of those age 30 and older.

A book? Singular? As in one? The percentage implies people who don’t read any books at all. Which I just can’t get my head around. Clearly, I’m reading their share.

And then we come to actual libraries.

Apologies for the impending wall of text… I’m still trying to decide how to unpack what these statistics actually mean for how professionals need to think about libraries. Would welcome your ideas in the comments. More from Pew

As a group, Millennials are as likely as older adults to have used a library in the past 12 months, and more likely to have used a library website. Among those ages 16-29, 50% reported having used a library or bookmobile in the course of the past year in a September 2013 survey. Some 47% of those 30 and older had done so. Some 36% of younger Americans used a library website in that time frame, compared with 28% of those 30 and older. Despite their relatively high use of libraries, younger Americans are among the least likely to say that libraries are important. Some 19% of those under 30 say their library’s closing would have a major impact on them and their family, compared with 32% of older adults, and 51% of younger Americans say it would have a major impact on their community, compared with 67% of those 30 and older.

As with the general population, most younger Americans know where their local library is, but many say they are unfamiliar with all the services it may offer: 36% of Millennials say they know little or nothing about the local library’s services, compared with 29% of those 30 and older. At the same time, most younger Americans feel they can easily navigate their local library, and the vast majority would describe libraries as warm, welcoming places, though younger patrons are less likely to rate libraries’ physical conditions highly.

Things I wonder in the above: How is library use distributed across the three stages of the Millennial cohort, especially with regard to school-related or free library usage? What are the communities like, in terms of urban or suburban, big or small libraries?

And what can be done by librarians to make those numbers higher? Is it a question of improving outreach? Improving opportunities for access? Changing services?

And even more interesting to see how various newsblogs approached it:

 Millennials Are Out-Reading Older Generations, crows The Atlantic. So far so good. Subhed a little worrying “But younger Americans value library services less than more senior cohorts, study finds. ”

While the lede goes for the easy-problematic “much-maligned Millennial” trope and cutesiness about selfies, it levels out, to say the point that Millennials are buying more books than they borrow, and valuing the library as a space, rather than a source of books. And it makes the point that library use is high among underserved populations.

OK, as a budding librarian, I can go for that. I can rise to that occasion and see it as a call to do better outreach, to make sure people know about the place and its resources. I can be inspired by the public library as a place that closes digital divides and information gaps (if you will permit me my jargon.)

The headline on the HuffPo piece puts a tackier tabloid spin on the story “Millennials Are Actually MORE Likely To Read Books, Study Finds.” I can’t tell whether they’re trying to convey surprise or create clickbait. HuffPo covers similar territory to the Atlantic, with, happily, less winking about “selfies.” While The Atlantic draws the distinction between library use as a place and library use as a resource, HuffPo conflates avid reading with use and visits to the library as a web presence or as a physical space. HuffPo leaves the numbers out of its assertion that younger people feel they would be less impacted by the closing of a library, and doesn’t touch on the economics of library use by job seekers, or those bridging information/technology gaps.

With its breezy tone, few numbers, and mentioning that younger people might not feel the impact of library closures, I worry that the HuffPo piece implies a stance that libraries are on their way out, aren’t cool, aren’t worth defending for the younger generation. Which worries me. And not just for my future job security.

Still, I’m not going to up and say “save libraries,” because that kind of rhetoric becomes too easily shrill and easy to ignore. Instead… discover libraries. And I’m hoping to help that happen.



One Comment leave one →
  1. September 20, 2014 1:35 pm

    Only so far you can crunch that data, I think… it’s such a weird sample distinction. My take, for what it’s worth:

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