The changing face of libraries

Readers know I revere libraries. My mother got my first library card when I turned six. I’d routinely break the six-item checkout limit with dinosaur books in second grade and Judy Blume in sixth. But although I mourn the deathly quiet in reference sections as patrons thumbed through editions of World Book and Who’s Who, I feel no nostalgia. When my university opened its eight-story library in 1997, it was supposed to be the largest structure of its kind in the southeastern United States. This was the same year when I started seeing Yahoo and Netscape popping up in campus computer labs and at our own newspaper. In other words, the university opened this structure at the point when libraries filled with bound volumes were starting their slide into obsolescence.

Millennials treat public libraries like Starbucks: a communal space in which to use the internet, whether on their phones or checked out laptops – “learning communities,” to use the university jargon. Their parents and grandparents, retired or unemployed, read the newspaper, Danielle Steele, or use the free computers to upload photos to Facebook and Instagram. The library also doubles as town center; my county commissioner holds meetings at mine every other Thursday.

I find this data fascinating:

A new analysis of Pew Research Center survey data from fall 2016 finds that 53% of Millennials (those ages 18 to 35 at the time) say they used a library or bookmobile in the previous 12 months. That compares with 45% of Gen Xers, 43% of Baby Boomers and 36% of those in the Silent Generation. (It is worth noting that the question wording specifically focused on use of public libraries, not on-campus academic libraries.)

All told, 46% of adults ages 18 and older say they used a public library or bookmobile in the previous 12 months – a share that is broadly consistent with Pew Research Center findings in recent years.

Visiting my public library on Saturday mornings, I see reference librarians performing duties that wouldn’t have surprised their predecessors in 1987: helping school kids find books for reports. It’s different in library science circles, where discussion in the last decade has centered on use: what are university libraries for? At state universities where interdepartmental fights for space are routine as financial allocations dwindle, those ill-used floors with bound volumes must look tempting. I often joke with the uni librarians about being their most regular – their only – customer. Accustomed to free WiFi and air conditioning, students may overlook their surroundings: lots of books. I don’t think it occurs to them that buying a math textbook or A Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t required. In other words, if the material isn’t found on Google Books, people under thirty expect to pay for services my generation took for granted.

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