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Millennials Saving Libraries

As library puff pieces go, this is one of the weirdest examples of the genre I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t seem to know what public libraries are doing or why. The same might be true of public librarians themselves, but they hide it better.

Start with the headline: “Libraries obsolete? No way, say Millennials.” I expected mention of the recent Pew study, but the journalist wanted to get so much more out of the story.

There’s a logic to the article that unravels by the end. For example, we get this: “In the age of Amazon’s two-hour delivery and ubiquitous internet searches, libraries are seemingly obsolete institutions.”

Ah, yes, the old “Amazon makes libraries obsolete assumption.” It’s a foolish assumption, perhaps, but without it why bother writing articles like this.

Then the Pew study is mentioned: “according to a recent Pew Research study, 53 percent of Millennials (those ages 18-35) in the United States visited a library at least once in 2016, more than any other generation.”

This is the kind of news about libraries only a librarian could get excited about. In the heaviest library using generation, a little over half the people visited a library at least once? Evidence that libraries are really popular!

The explanation right after that sentence? “Books are expensive, say Millennials. So why not take advantage of the library?”

The justification in the article? One college student who is looking at books at the Boston Public Library.

It looks like we’re going to get an article about how Amazon hasn’t made libraries obsolete because Pew says millennials visit libraries and one of them actually checks out books. It’s not much, but it’s something.

But it’s all downhill from there. The article then goes out of its way to explain all the ways that millennials aren’t looking for books in libraries.

“One of the biggest values of the library, for all ages, is that it’s a free place where you can be outside of your home and outside of work,” says one librarian.

“Millennials say they also appreciate libraries’ free community spaces and in-person programming.” Oh, is that what millennials say? I’ve always wondered.

“On a given Monday, the Boston Public Library’s online events calendar advertises a variety of free programs aimed at young adults, from ‘Job Search and Resume Help’ at Central, ‘English/Spanish Language Exchange’ at the West End branch, a book club discussion on a new bestseller at the Charlestown branch, to a free concert at the East Boston branch.” At least there was a book club discussion.

Public libraries have always supposedly been the “university of the people.” Evidence? “The Pennsylvania Avenue branch of the Baltimore library was one of the few public buildings to remain open during the violent riots that followed the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who died at the hands of local police officers in 2015.”

That’s really in there. What’s not in there? Books.

A librarian with 30 years of experience “has watched local branches become “community gathering places” that neighborhoods  – especially young people – depend on. Recently, for example, a young woman came in to print off bills while a young man came in to work on his resume.” Still waiting for the books.

Another frequent library visitor doesn’t check out books, but just likes “the feeling the library gives me. It’s calm, clean, organized.”

So the library is not really about books.

The weirdest way that millennials are supposedly making libraries not obsolete, or however it would make sense to phrase that, is that they want to work in them. Millennials want jobs, and some of those jobs they want are in libraries. That really is news.

One millennial librarian used to like hanging out at the library because it was a “place where people are willing to have a conversation or make recommendations for me.” From context, I assume those recommendations are for books to read, which is that thing librarians used to do before they devoted all their time to helping people with job applications and administering Narcan.

Also, at one library school, “the average applicant age has fallen to 27 in recent years.” It used to be that people would fail at other careers before starting over as librarians. Millennials are apparently too lazy to bother doing that.

Supposedly, “The younger applicants ‘want to promote literacy and access to information,’” which based on the article they’ll be doing by not having anything to do with books.

It sounds like younger people who are big readers and library users want to work in public libraries to share their enthusiasm for books with other people, which makes them a lot like previous generations of people who became librarians.

The difference is that now, according to articles like this, libraries aren’t really about books anymore. You can want to “promote literacy and access to information” like crazy, but it doesn’t seem like most people are interested, and if a sign of heavy use is setting foot in a library once a year, they never will be.

Maybe Amazon made libraries obsolete after all, and all those millennials want to be librarians without realizing we live in a post-library world.

That’s okay. Millennials need community centers and the people that run them, too. It’ll give them somewhere to eat their avocado toast while they contemplate the houses they can’t afford to buy.

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Comments

  1. John Krivak says:

    The real reason that people age 18-35 are the heaviest library users is that the 25-35 year olds are the parents of young children, who bring the kids to the library for books, story times, etc. In the public library this has been the usage pattern for generation after generation. Nothing new here except the name given to the current generation of young parents.

  2. The reasons I’ve heard for high millennials usage of libraries is that millennials are too broke to buy anything. I get that. I’m in that small generation between gen x and millennials and I don’t have the money to buy every book I’d like to read. I use my library all the time for print and ebooks. If I love a book so much that I’d want to read it more than once, then I’ll purchase a copy. Otherwise, why spend money on something I may not like? Also I don’t have the space for tons of print books and selling them to a used book store after I’m done with them doesn’t get me the full price back that I paid for them.

  3. Missing Actual Readers says:

    As a millenial librarian, it can be frustrating that most people who walk through our doors use the library for anything but books. The amount of requests I get for audiovisual materials is staggering while the requests I get for actual books is minuscule.

    The majority of users who need help locating books or requesting books are older people or children and tweens. Not too many millenials seem to use our books, even though they’re free. *sigh* I’ve slowly started to accept that people want everything including DVDs, free internet, streaming boxes, fishing poles, games, video games, everything except books, from the library. Such is life and at least it pays the bills (which is more than I can say for the other jobs I held before becoming a librarian).

    • anonymous coward says:

      Fear not. Your book circulation is probably still fine- you just don’t notice because people don’t need your help to find the stuff. I would also point out that someone checking out a good movie is (if we’re judging on quality) better than someone checking out a harlequin romance novel, no?

  4. >This is the kind of news about libraries only a librarian could get excited about. In the heaviest library using generation, a little over half the people visited a library at least once?

    The NEA does this too. Their studies on reading are based on “x demographic book read at least one y book in the past year.” I don’t see any use for the “at least one” data, other than a survey that would rather be accurate and useless than useful and slightly inaccurate by having to assign numeric values to responses like “about a couple dozen” in response to a question about number of books read.

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