The Pew Research Center Internet Project issued a new report September 10 on the library habits of Americans under 30. “Younger Americans and Public Libraries” examines the ways Millennials—those born between 1985 and 1998—engage with libraries, and how they see libraries’ roles in their lives and communities. The good news is that young people are reading as much as older adults, and are even more likely to have read a book in the past 12 months. Also, their library use is holding steady. Nonetheless, the report warns, their levels of engagement vary in a number of ways.
The report, authored by Kathryn Zickuhr and Lee Rainie, is the latest analysis to emerge from the Pew Internet public library research initiative. The series of surveys, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and conducted between 2011 and 2013, looked at the role of libraries in the lives of Americans age 16 and older. The first, in 2011, took basic soundings on e-reading habits. A 2012 survey looked at library services. And a survey released earlier this year, which analyzed some 6,000 responses, was a typology of library users, offering insights beyond straight demographics. All the information collected in previous surveys was then analyzed along generational lines for this report—examining, as Rainie, the Pew Research Center’s director of Internet, science, and technology research, described it, “a slice of data run through a lens that we know librarians are interested in.”
The study separates Millennials into three distinct groups: high schoolers, aged 16–17; college-aged (although not necessarily attending college), 18–24; and young adults, 25–29. Their reading habits, library usage patterns, and attitudes about libraries often diverge significantly but taken together offer a portrait of the ways younger Americans read and interact with libraries.
Millennials read about as much as older adults, with 43 percent saying that they read a book in some format (print, audiobook, or ebook) every day. As a group, they are also as likely as older adults to have used a library in the past 12 months, and more likely to have used a public library website.
One of the survey’s most interesting findings is that, despite the major presence of technology in their lives, 62 percent of the group as a whole agrees there is “a lot of useful, important information that is not available on the Internet,” as opposed to 53 percent of older Americans. Still, 98 percent of all Millennials believe that “the Internet makes it much easier to find information today than it was in the past,” and 79 percent of those surveyed hold that “people who are without internet access are at a real disadvantage.” A full 98 percent of Millennials use the Internet, as opposed to 82 percent of those over 30.
At the same time, only 57 percent of those surveyed believed that “it’s easy to separate the good information from the bad information online.” Some 61 percent of all Americans—those over 30 as well as the Millennials—have a library card, and roughly half of the younger Americans have visited a library in the past year.
However, the report notes that Millennials do not seem to be engaging with libraries to the fullest extent possible. Overall, physical visits to the library in 2013 were down from 2012. Only 36 percent of the Millennials surveyed had used a library website in the past year, and a mere 19 percent felt they “know all or most of the services your library offers.” Although 71 percent agreed that public library services are important “because they promote literacy [and] love of reading,” younger individuals are much less likely to feel that their local public library’s closing would have a major impact on their family or community.
If there’s one thing Millennials have in common, it’s how difficult they are to classify. “Younger Americans,” the report states, “especially fascinate researchers and organizations because of their advanced technology habits, their racial and ethnic diversity, their looser relationships to institutions such as political parties and organized religion, and the ways in which their social attitudes differ from their elders.”
These inconsistencies are not just statistical. Librarians often see contrasting Millennial behaviors in action. Laureen Cantwell, Reference and Distance Services Librarian at Colorado Mesa University and a Millennial herself, serves a range of young people from dual-enrolled high-schoolers to older college students. “I see a lot of what’s known as satisficing,” she told LJ, which means they feel satisfied in their research when a sufficient answer is reached, often at the expense of looking deeper into information resources. “They go with what they can find as opposed to sleuthing out what they need—they’re not employing all their options.”
Not everyone agrees. Kimberly Matthews, executive director of the Trenton Free Library and coauthor of the 21st Century Library Blog, sees her Millennial patrons as critical thinkers who want to know how online resources are going to serve them, rather than trusting what others—including library or Internet sources—might tell them. And Derrick Feldman, lead researcher for the 2014 Millennial Impact Report, believes that a sense of community involvement is crucial to this demographic’s engagement with libraries, especially with content accessible anywhere and everywhere.
All agree, however, that Millennials are a largely pragmatic generation with few illusions that the Internet has all the answers—even as they acknowledge its importance—and that there is a strong need for the kind of information literacy that libraries can provide them. The Pew findings indicate that younger Americans may be open to that message as well. “Millennials are interesting and distinct in ways that people who serve them through libraries would like to know,” Rainie told LJ. “This generation is on the frontlines watching libraries change, and they have expressed appreciation for it.”