March 4, 2019

Going Beyond the Bookshelves

Millennials respond as libraries evolve

When Evalina Dombrowski first moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, she was just out of college and looking for a job. She immediately signed up for courses at the public library.

“The library was a huge launch pad for the beginning of a new career,” said 28-year-old Dombrowski, who is now executive director of a nonprofit helping families in poverty or homelessness. “For me, I don’t think I would’ve been able to be successful in my career had I not started in earnest in finding out the things I didn’t know.”

Dombrowski now visits the library twice a week to take courses on applying for research grants, as well as to check out books, TV shows, or movies that aren’t available on streaming services.

Like Evalina, 53 percent of Millennials in 2016 said they visited a public library or bookmobile in the previous 12 months—a share larger than any other generation. That compares with 45 percent of Generation Xers, 43 percent of Baby Boomers, and 36 percent of those in the Silent Generation, according to a fall 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center.

“There’s a pretty widespread impression in the world that Millennials don’t read books or are glued to their screen and never want to leave their bedrooms,” said Lee Rainie, director of internet and technology research at the Pew Research Center. “In fact, the research we did pushed against that narrative.”

percent of Millennials said in 2016 that they had used a public library in the last year

Tech hubs

Americans are still going to libraries for traditional reasons. About two-thirds (64%) of library users 16 and older say they borrow print books, and around half (49%) go to just sit and read, study, or watch or listen to videos, according to a spring 2016 survey. Other research has shown that the printed word has had “staying power” and remains more popular than e-books or audiobooks, Rainie said.

But public libraries, like countless other industries, have had to adapt to a digital world. Now alongside the shelves of books are computers, e-readers, and tablets. The spring 2016 survey found that about three-in-ten library-using Americans 16 and older (29%) go to libraries to use computers, the internet, or a public Wi-Fi network. 

Although technology use has grown across every generation, younger adults—especially Millennials—are consistently the “trailblazers” when it comes to using broadband, owning smartphones, and using social media, Rainie said.

“Libraries have really reinvented themselves as the place where you can get access to tech you can’t afford,” said Emily Faulkner, director at the DeKalb Public Library in Illinois.

Libraries have really reinvented themselves as the place where you can get access to tech you can’t afford.

Emily Faulkner, DeKalb Public Library

Libraries have become not only early adopters of technology, but also its early teachers.

“A lot of my patrons have a smartphone or computer, but they’re afraid to bank online because they’re afraid of the risks,” said Jessamyn West, a library technologist in rural Vermont.

West hosts weekly "Drop-In Times" at the local library where people can bring their technology questions as well as skills questions such as how to safely bank and shop online.

“As librarians, we not only understand technology, but we’re not trying to sell you something,” West said. “We’re trying to solve a problem for you.”

Community space

Libraries also continue to be public spaces for discussion, learning, and socializing. The Pew Research Center’s spring 2016 survey found that 27 percent of library users had attended classes, programs, or lectures at libraries in the past year, an increase of 10 percentage points from 2015.

percent of library users had attended classes, programs, or lectures at libraries in the past year

Beyond access to books and technology, libraries are now places where patrons can check out a tent for a camping trip, source seeds for their garden, compete in trivia night, or join an intergenerational knitting club. These are all offerings at the public library in Palo Alto, California, where Monique Ziesenhenne is library director.

Ziesenhenne said the fact that Millennials are using public libraries more than any other generation is less a result of appealing to one particular generation and more a validation of libraries’ efforts to reflect communities’ needs.

“One of the things we have been doing is really talking to people: ‘What do you think we should be doing? What do you think we should be offering?’ We’re looking for community members to co-create with us,” she said.

To learn more about Americans’ library use, view the 2017 Pew Research Center analysis, “Millennials are the most likely generation of Americans to use public libraries,” and well as the 2016 report of library usage.

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