Libraries are dying. Nobody reads print books anymore. Maybe you’ve heard those sentiments in the last few years and wondered if they’re true.
Recent trends have actually shown the opposite. Not only are libraries growing and expanding in their collections and patrons, some people are ditching eBooks for print books they can hold in their hands. The most surprising part is who’s responsible for that growth and the trend back from eBooks to print. According to a November 2023 report from the American Library Association, libraries across the nation are seeing an increase in young adults and teens using their services. The report, titled “Gen Z and Millennials: How They Use Public Libraries and Identify Through Media Use,” found that 54% of people in the Gen Z (ages 13-25) and millennial (ages 26-40) age groups had visited a library during a 12 month period. Interestingly, Gen Zers read and purchase slightly more books than millennials, in the categories of print books, eBooks, and audiobooks. Of those three book types, print books take the lead with Gen Zers purchasing 2.5 a month and reading just over 2 a month.
Chatfield Public Library Director Monica Erickson noted that over her years working at the library, she has observed a continual ebb and flow to be normal in library usage and has some theories as to why that seems to be the case. “The numbers in these specific demographics seems to shift with various factors like graduations, relocations, changes in homeschooling dynamics, and seasonal variations. As for potential reasons behind increased library use, several factors are likely possible: the availability of free Wi-Fi, regular access to new and appealing materials, the library serving as a safe and welcoming space for casual meet-ups, the personalized and relationship-focused service provided, less rigid behavioral expectations, and the appeal of various programs.”
Lanesboro Library Director Tara Johnson has seen a “return” of kids and families to the library in the last six months after the pandemic reduced the number significantly. “The library is a safe, parent-approved place to meet friends, wait for practice or a ride home. Kids that attended library storytime as toddlers are making their way back as tweens and teens,” she said. The Preston Public Library also observed a decrease in patronage after the pandemic for a while, but now sees even more teens, young adults, and young families coming through the doors than before.
One of the reasons why reading in general is on the rise right now among 13-40 year olds is actually connected with smartphone use. Communities on TikTok and Instagram, called BookTok and Bookstagram respectively, are how many young people hear about different books. Erickson was recently surprised at the sudden popularity of several older books. “I discovered they had collected widespread attention thanks to recommendations circulated on TikTok’s ‘BookTok.’” she explained. “This enthusiastic community regularly engages in sharing and endorsing their latest favorites reads. Nothing beats the promotion of books through the genuine advice of someone who has not only read the book, but also shares common interests, making it feel like a recommendation from a friend.” A millennial herself, Preston Library Director Samantha Buley noted that she often picks her next book to read from links her friends send her on Instagram.
Social media also has an effect on the in-person use of libraries with several Fillmore County libraries reporting that, beside word-of-mouth, it’s the most effective method of getting the word out to the community about events and other things at the library. When polled after programs, many attendees noted social media as the primary way they find out about library events. Harmony Library Director Stephanie Morse attributes an increase in visits from young families and teenagers over the last two years to the promotion the children’s librarian, Elena Patterson, does on Facebook.
During the pandemic, libraries in Fillmore County and around the world were closed for varying lengths of time. During that time, many people who were stuck at home turned to eBooks, but have since returned to print books as their preferred method of reading. “I can’t help but think that one potential factor contributing to this trend could be a desire to take a break from the constant consumption of social media and online app content that dominates their daily routine,” Erickson said about the increased use of print books in younger generations. Morse noted that she has seen the circulation of digital books and ebooks increase greatly over the last few years, but that that hasn’t decreased the number of print books going out. “People still like to have the actual book in their hands,” she explained.
Graphic novels and manga have also become increasingly popular with the ALA reporting that 59% of Gen Z and millennials choose them over a text-only book. This is a trend that has been observed locally as well. “Kids are devouring them (graphic novels) and they want a book in hand, not the digital version,” Johnson said. The Preston Library staff agreed, noting that graphic novel shelves have been added to both the junior and young adult sections at the library due to their popularity.
When most people think of a library, they think of books, but in today’s world, libraries are so much more. The ALA reported that 23% of Gen Z and millennials had visited a library in the last year even though they did not consider themselves to be “readers,” most likely to use one of the many other services available at libraries. Libraries provide cultural and educational opportunities through classes and events, free Wi-Fi and meeting places, as well as expanded collections of items that patrons can check out from the library. “We’ve broadened our collection to encompass a range of nontraditional library materials branded as “Adventure Kits.” Erickson explained about the Chatfield Library. “These kits span diverse interests featuring STEAM activities, knitting looms, snowshoes, and popular outdoor games and toys.” Other libraries in Fillmore County offer similar items such as the STEM kits at the Rushford and Preston libraries, puzzles and games that are available at nearly every library in the area, cake pans at the Spring Grove library, homeschool curriculum, therapy lamps, and disc golf sets at the Preston library, and a seed library at the Lanesboro library. Additionally, many Fillmore County libraries work with Fillmore County Public Health to distribute free COVID-19 tests and also have state-provided tax forms available.
So how do libraries stay relevant in today’s increasingly digital world? It really comes down to connections and community. Johnson summed it up with one word. “Listen!” That thought was echoed by other libraries as well. “We are trying to focus on community needs and wants so we can respond as best we can with appropriate and cost-efficient answers,” Morse said.