Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Clare Facer spends a lot of time at libraries.
The 20-year-old Southern California native is a college student who prefers to study for her classes at libraries thanks to factors like the peaceful ambiance and prevalent Internet access. And though she is a digital native between the ages of 16 and 29, and conventional wisdom might seem to say otherwise, she's not unusual.
In fact, she's in the majority of young Americans, who perhaps surprisingly use libraries and read printed books more often than older Americans.
“Younger Americans — those ages 16-29 — exhibit a fascinating mix of habits and preferences when it comes to reading, libraries, and technology,” according to a new report by Pew Research Center. “Almost all Americans under age 30 are online (but) they are also still closely bound to print, as three-quarters (75 percent) of younger Americans say they have read at least one book in print in the past year, compared with 64 percent of adults ages 30 and older.”
Facer puts a face on this trend. Her penchant for library use far predates higher education.
“Growing up, going to the library to get books was always like an event,” Facer said. “It wasn’t work then, like it is now when I go to do homework. Going to the library was special — I totally remember a lot of the challenges where you’d get a prize for reading books, like a free cheeseburger at In N Out.”
Facer’s experience of positive early interactions with libraries and an ongoing need for the services libraries provide are indicative of why brick-and-mortar libraries may yet enjoy a viable future in contemporary U.S. society. The Pew report “Younger Americans’ library habits and expectations” revealed that 67 percent of Americans ages 16-29 had visited a library in the past year, compared with 62 percent of those 30 and older.
Part of libraries' appeal for digital natives is technology. More younger than older Americans have used library websites and have accessed those sites from mobile devices. And 38 percent of those 16-29 have used computer and the Internet at a library in the past year, compared to 20 percent for those 30 and up.
The appeal of going to a place where they can seamlessly alternate between studying and socializing is another primary factor driving younger Americans to frequent libraries.
“One major surprise in (the new report) is that even in an age of increasing digital resources, those in this under-30 cohort are more likely than older Americans to use and appreciate libraries as physical spaces — places to study for class, go online, or just hang out,” the Pew report further noted.
Oftentimes, though, libraries aren’t inherently welcoming to teens and young adults. Such was the case in 2009 at the Independence (Kansas) Public Library in when Julie Hildebrand hired as the library’s director.
“One of the first things that I noticed was the space where (the young adults) were at, we had to try to keep them quiet,” Hildebrand said. “They couldn’t really socialize, and they were frustrated because we were always telling them to be quiet if they were in an area where there were a lot of adults and they were studying and so forth.
“We had a security guard to monitor them, but after school and throughout the summer things would get so bad that we were regularly calling the police department to come to the library.”
Hildebrand and her lieutenants eventually made the strategic decision to move the young adults to a place on the third floor of the library that was designated especially for their use. The security guard was sent packing, and a special young-adult librarian was hired instead.
“When we did that, it was like day and night,” said Hildebrand, who library was named the Best Small Library in America for 2012. “They could socialize, they could be treated with respect, be able to use the computer and play games together and not have to have adults continually telling them they needed to be quiet or they couldn’t do that. That made all the difference.”
However, one aspect in particular of the Pew Research Center’s findings raised questions about whether younger Americans might sustain libraries decades into the future. Despite their use of them, only 43 percent of people ages 16-24 consider libraries to be “very important” to their communities. Comparatively, 68 percent of Americans 30 and older think libraries are “very important” pillars in their communities.
“Perhaps they just see libraries as a place where they go to meet their friends,” said Jack Martin, president of Young Adult Library Services Association. “I think it’s probably safe to say that they don’t understand in a lot of cases the impact that’s happening to them right now when they walk into the library, when they find something and when they’re digging through information.
“And I think in a lot of cases they might take it for granted because they’re just teenagers.”
An interesting ancillary finding in the new Pew Research Center report is that handheld tablets are one of the only types of newer technological innovations in which younger Americans aren’t the most proficient early adopters: 25 percent of Americans ages 16-29 own a tablet, compared to 35 percent of people between the ages of 30-49.
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