By Ryan Christopher Coleman
According to a report issued by the Pew Research Center, millennials are the generation of Americans you’re most likely to find at your local library. The study was published by Pew Senior Researcher John Horrigan in the fall of 2016, after about a month of polling conducted that spring.
The nearly 1600 queried were asked a series of questions relating to their usage of, engagement with, and attitude toward public libraries. One encouraging aggregate result found that 48 percent of Americans aged 18 and over confirmed they had visited a public library or bookmobile in person in the past 12 months. Breaking down this statistic reveals interesting demographic insights. 53 percent of millennials (aged 18-30) said they had visited a library or bookmobile in the past 12 months, compared with 45 percent of Generation X (aged 36-51), 43 percent of baby boomers (aged 52-70), and 36 percent of the Silent Generation (aged 71-88).
These results clash with public perceptions of the young generation. While the term was coined over 25 years ago, millennials have become a lightning rod for consternation within the past three years. Millennials are often conflated with the worst attitudes to be borne out of the ascendant digital age—narcissism, vapidity, and emotional fragility, resulting from ever-engrossing and increasingly personalized social technology. To date, dozens, even hundreds of takes have been published decrying millennials as the harbingers of society’s inevitable death by navel-gazing.
Pew’s results are extraordinary for how they challenge the view of millennials as an entirely self-interested generation. Libraries are temples of history, where one comes to broaden their personal and cultural horizons. What might account for a generation of young Americans’ renewed interest in one of our nation’s oldest institutions?
Deputy Director of Pasadena’s public library system, Tim McDonald, has a few ideas. “Libraries around the country are responding pretty rapidly to the needs of their communities,” says McDonald, noting the expanding role libraries are playing in the civic landscape. Libraries are advancing lock-step with the digital age, not being phased out by it.
Pasadena’s public system in particular has embraced the changing needs of its community. The Library provides a wide variety of free community resources, from the Central Library’s law librarian, on-hand for patrons’ legal questions, to a new partnership with the Department of Public Health, which furnishes a case manager ready to provide outreach to homeless patrons at any of the city’s 10 local branches.
“It’s not just checking out a book and returning it when you’re done anymore,” McDonald says, “we really are moving the needle on community needs.” It’s this investment in the community which attracts young people. From cultural programming, like Pasadena’s popular and highly youth-attended ”One City, One Story” month of events, to the obvious appeal of free technology (computers, wifi, printing services).
McDonald was unsurprised by Pew’s results. “My observation is that millennials are a reading generation,” he says. Millennials’ affection for the printed word may surprise some, but in a city that places such a premium on literacy and community engagement, the draw Pasadena’s libraries have on millennials should surprise no one.