Will Millennials Kill off Libraries?

A recent article in the Washington Post highlighted how millennials (age 25-34) change the cities and suburbs in which they choose to settle down. In Arlington, Virginia, the impact has been felt acutely by the county library system:

The county’s public library system has built a robust series of programs that cater to young professionals, sponsoring trivia nights in local bars, book clubs in restaurants, and adult recess and game nights at the Central Library. 

Another recent story highlights how New Jersey libraries have had to adapt to the rise of the millennial generation. Much of what millennials seem to want from their libraries is digital access—3D printers, video studios, and text message reference help. As libraries become more digital, use among younger generations should increase, librarians say.

But it is an ambitious Dallas Observer article titled, “Dallas Libraries Strive to Survive in a Digital World,” that asks the important question: Does anyone even need libraries anymore?

The digital revolution, which helped send the Borders bookstore chain to its grave and has left the sales floors of Barnes & Noble looking like the computer tablet section at Best Buy, didn’t spare even the free books at libraries. Smart phones and e-readers ate into their bread and butter: serving as central repositories of information. With a digital library open in your pocket 24-7, who needs the analog version? What happens to libraries when books are no longer enough?

A 2014 report by the Pew Research Center found that college-aged adults (ages 18-24), were less likely to use public libraries than many other age groups, less likely to see libraries as vital for themselves or their community, less likely to have visited a library recently, and are more likely to purchase most of the books they read than borrow them from a library. According to the study, they were also least likely to say that libraries were “important.”

All of this is great news for Amazon.com and terrible news for libraries—which continue to think the answer to their diminished status is to “adapt or die,” which means becoming less about books than about social spaces and technology hubs. Librarians point to millennials who have been raised on Amazon.com’s promise of one-click shopping and near-instantaneous delivery as driving this trend. After all, with Amazon you don’t have to deal with parking and interlibrary loans; librarians also need to sleep and libraries close overnight, while Amazon fulfillment warehouses do not.

The question at the heart of the future of libraries is this: What is information and what do we want citizens to use information for? Millennials tend to think they can learn anything with a simple Google search. But bound books on shelves have always represented more than fragments of information; they represent ideas, arguments, lessons, and whole stories, and librarians are our indispensible guides to them.

The Dallas library system was started with funds from the industrial giant Andrew Carnegie. After coming to America as an immigrant and working as a bobbin boy in a textile factory (and with only four years of formal schooling), Carnegie became one of the most frequent users of the personal library of Colonel James Anderson. The military man turned his 400-book library into a free lending library for any working boys in Pittsburgh—and acted as the librarian. In his autobiography, published in 1920, Carnegie wrote of the “blessing from above” that this access (to “the treasures of literature”) represented:

Every day’s toil and even the long hours of night service were lightened by the book which I carried about with me and read in the intervals that could be snatched from duty. And the future was made bright by the thought that when Saturday came a new volume could be obtained. . . . Books which it would have been impossible for me to obtain elsewhere were, by his wise generosity, placed within my reach; and to him I owe a taste for literature which I would not exchange for all the millions that were ever amassed by man.

Can you imagine someone talking about libraries this way today?

When Carnegie began giving away his fortune to help start local libraries he said, “There was no use to which money could be applied so productive of good to boys and girls who have good within them and ability and ambition to develop it, as the founding of a public library in a community which is willing to support it as a municipal institution. I am sure that the future of those libraries I have been privileged to found will prove the correctness of this opinion.”

We are approaching the day when the millennial generation will have to confront Carnegie’s vision and decide if it will be (as it has been for so many generations since Carnegie) their vision too. The answer to that question can’t be found on Google.

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