No, the library is not dead. Credit: Bing Image Creator

Check This Out

Kim Bellard

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As an avid reader, a month ago I was depressed to read that apparently 46% of Americans did not read any books in 2023. If you manage to read just one book a month — just one book per month! — that puts you in the top 20%. Combine that with the recent wave of book bans and, increasingly, librarians being under siege, it sure seems like grim times for a literate society.

But, it turns out, things might not be quite as bad as I’d feared, and the hope comes from Gen Z and millennials.

A pair of Portland State University professors, Kathi Inman Berens and Rachel Noorda, summarize the results of their new research in an article in The Conversation: Gen Z and millennials have an unlikely love affair with their local libraries. In a world of TikTok, gaming, and streaming, who’d have thought?

According to their survey, 54% of Gen Z/millennials have visited a library in the past year — versus 45% of Gen X and 43% of baby boomers. Even over half of the 43% Gen Z/millennials who don’t claim to be readers say they’ve visited a library in the past year. The researchers found: “Browsing public libraries is Gen Z’s #3 preferred place to discover books. Libraries are the #5 preferred place for millennials to discover books.”

Credit: Berens and Noorda

The authors note:

The library provides a number of things beyond books: a safe, free place to hang out, important resources and advice during big life changes such as career transition, parenthood, new language acquisition, or learning to read; Wi-fi enabled work spaces; and creativity resources like maker spaces and media production equipment.

The authors argue that, whether the patrons are checking books out or not, libraries serve as a low cost marketing venue for publishers, allowing readers to find books risk-free. They further see print books as fitting better into a social media age than one might think:

When fans are also creators, printed books make good props in visual media like TikTok short videos and Instagram Reels. There are no TikTok videos of ebooks! Printed books can be imaginatively used as conversation pieces or expressive objects.

Every library should prominently post “There are no TikTok videos of ebooks!”

Gen Z/millennials are also going to bookstores, with 58% buying a book there in the past year. Indeed, the research found: “Gen Z and millennials slightly prefer bookstores to libraries for printed book discovery.”

Given all this, it’s shocking how we’re treating libraries and the people who staff them. “We’re no longer seeing a parent have a conversation with a teacher or librarian about a book their child is reading,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, told The New York Times. “We’re seeing partisan groups demand the removal of books that they’re told are bad books, that they are not even reading, because they don’t meet the political or moral agenda.”

The Times further reported: “People who normally preside over hushed sanctuaries are now battling groups that demand the mass removal of books and seek to control library governance. Last year, more than 150 bills in 35 states aimed to restrict access to library materials, and to punish library workers who do not comply.”

Despite all this, libraries remain a special place, at least for Gen Z/millennials. Professors Berens and Noorda speculate: “Gen Zers and millennials still see libraries as a kind of oasis — a place where doomscrolling and information overload can be quieted, if temporarily…Perhaps Gen Zers’ and millennials’ library visits, like their embrace of flip phones and board games, are another life hack for slowing down.”

Contrary to the gloomy reading statistics I started with, Professors Berens and Noorda found that young people claim to read 2 print books, 1 ebook, and 1 audiobook a month, with Gen Z slightly outpacing millennials. When asked generally about reading habits, reading print books are, not surprisingly, less common than reading text messages, email, social media, and websites, but is solidly in 5th place (50%).

Credit: Berens and Noorda

Despite what you might believe about the prevalence of gaming and the creator/influencer economy, when asked about their “media identity,” 57% of Gen Z/millennial identity as readers, versus 53% as gamers and 52% as fans. Reading is not dead.

Despite the encouraging research, we need to keep in mind that U.S. reading scores are at their lowest point in decades (along with math scores). There is now a movement called “the science of reading” that many educators (and legislators) are advocating, but a new study suggests a different culprit: students read better, learn better, when they read text on paper instead of on a screen. As the authors (Froud, et. alia) report: “Reading both expository and complex texts from paper seems to be consistently associated with deeper comprehension and learning.”

The authors say: “We do think that these study outcomes warrant adding our voices … in suggesting that we should not yet throw away printed books, since we were able to observe in our participant sample an advantage for depth of processing when reading from print.”

John R MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine, wrote about the study in The Guardian, and cited a speech MIT neuroscientist John Gabrielli gave last fall about the use of technology to improve reading:

I am impressed how educational technology has had no effect on scale, on reading outcomes, on reading difficulties, on equity issues.

How is it that none of it has lifted, on any scale, reading? … It’s like people just say, ‘Here is a product. If you can get it into a thousand classrooms, we’ll make a bunch of money.’ And that’s OK; that’s our system. We just have to evaluate which technology is helping people, and then promote that technology over the marketing of technology that has made no difference on behalf of students … It’s all been product and not purpose.

We have a “product” that works; it’s called a book. We have a place that nurtures and encourages young people to read them; it’s called a library. We scream and yell about the pernicious influences of social media while dragging libraries and “controversial” books into the cultural wars, and then wonder why reading scores plummet.

Let’s keep libraries an oasis. If Gen Z/millennials get it, why don’t the rest of us?

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Kim Bellard

Curious about many things, some of which I write about — usually health care, innovation, technology, or public policy. Never stop asking “why” or “why not”!