In our increasingly switched-on society, it's tempting to assume that younger generations are more interested in digital media and mobile devices than they are in spending time at their local public library branch.
The truth, however, is that a large number of millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) and members of Generation Z (people between the ages of 11 and 26) are still active library users, and not just because it's a great place to find books. Many of these younger patrons use their neighborhood branch as a way to access digital resources and tools.
For public libraries that have kept pace with technology, built robust digital collections and developed a range of online resources, this presents the opportunity to provide services and support to community members of all ages.
An evolving relationship with technology
The role of libraries (and library workers) in the communities they serve is constantly evolving, and as the patron's relationship with technology shifts, the library must respond in kind.
For example, a Government Technology article from last spring observed that the public's reliance on the library as a means to access desktop PCs and get online is becoming a thing of the past.
The article noted that in 1996, just one-quarter of libraries had public computers, but that quickly changed as a new millennium dawned:
By 2005, the American Library Association reported that free computer and Internet access existed in 98.9% of libraries. According to the ALA, at that time 85% of libraries were struggling to keep up with demand for public computer use, and visitor attendance numbers skyrocketed.
Decreased demand for public PCs
The popularity of public PCs declined as technology became more affordable and the widespread availability of mobile devices and Wi-Fi accelerated the change.
Citing open data from the Connecticut public library system, Government Technology reports that "public computer demand in the state slowly decreased over time, from a high of nearly 6 million public computer sessions in 2006 to less than one million in 2022."
The value of a library card
They might not show up at your branch seeking a desktop PC or internet access, but many teens and young adults still find a lot of value in having a library card.
In November 2023, the ALA released a report titled "Gen Z and Millennials: How They Use Public Libraries and Identify Through Media Use". Based on a nationally representative survey conducted by researchers at Portland State University, the report's findings include the following:
54% of Gen Z and millennials visited a physical library within a 12-month period.
Libraries attract even Gen Z and millennials who don’t identify as readers. 23% of Gen Z and millennials had visited a physical library in a 12-month period AND did not identify as readers.
52% of Gen Z and millennial physical library patrons said they borrowed from a library's digital collection.
In search of digital resources
Many members of these demographics are, in fact, visiting the library for that most traditional of reasons: to browse the shelves and check out print books. Others — whether they are visiting a brick-and-mortar branch or connecting remotely — are looking for one or more of these common digital resources available at many libraries:
eBooks and audiobooks
Most libraries provide access to digital libraries such as OverDrive and Libby, where users can borrow and download a wide range of eBooks and audiobooks for free.
Online courses and learning platforms
Libraries may offer access to educational platforms like LinkedIn Learning or Khan Academy, providing a variety of courses on various subjects ranging from technology and business to creative skills.
Video streaming services
Some libraries provide access to streaming services like Kanopy or Hoopla, offering movies, documentaries and educational content that can be accessed for free.
Libraries often partner with services like Freegal for music streaming, enabling users to listen to a wide range of songs and albums.
Digital comics and graphic novels
Platforms such as Comixology may be available through libraries, allowing patrons to borrow and read digital comics and graphic novels.
Virtual library events
Branches often host virtual events, book clubs, and discussions through platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, allowing patrons to engage with library programs in the digital environment from the comfort of their homes.
Some libraries have digital archives that house documents, photos, videos and other materials related to local history or significant events.
Job and career resources
Libraries may offer access to job search platforms, databases, resume-building tools and career development resources to assist Gen Z and millennial patrons in their professional pursuits.
News of the world
Many libraries also offer digital platforms such as PressReader, which features thousands of newspapers and magazines from around the world. Remote access makes it possible for Gen Z and millennial patrons to use PressReader from anywhere, at any time, all on their own devices.
Students use it for their research and education. News buffs use it to stay on top of current events. Other readers use it to catch up on their favorite publications, or to discover something entirely new relevant to their interests.
PressReader and some other digital and online resources are able to cater to library patrons with diverse needs by providing such accessibility features as adjustable font sizes, text-to-speech capabilities and support for screen readers. These features ensure that more users can enjoy the content.
Not necessarily the news
In a blog post last year, we told you about a few ways patrons use PressReader that isn't just to read the news, including to learn a new language.
Many libraries, of course, offer language learning resources like Duolingo, Rosetta Stone or Mango Languages, but we made note of Babbel blogger Thomas Moore Devlin's suggestion that those learning a different tongue read news articles in that language to reinforce what they have learned.
"Once you’ve got the basics of grammar and vocabulary down," Devlin wrote, "you’re ready to start tackling more advanced material in your new language."
Devlin specifically recommended that language students use PressReader — which features newspapers and magazines in more than 60 languages. "You can search through the publications by language and topic, so you can discover the news that fits your niche," he wrote.
Consuming and making media
As we noted above, the ALA reported that libraries attract even Gen Z and millennials who don’t identify as readers:
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.
Positing that "avid engagers fluidly move between consuming and making media", the report's authors reveal that, of those who discover books through 5+ different modes, 33% identify as writers, 17% as live streamers and 14% as podcasters.
Making space for creativity
One of the most effective ways that libraries can meet the needs of such creators — and boost community engagement in general — is by making library space and resources available so that patrons can come together and share ideas, work on projects or just have fun.
Branches with adequate physical space and budget, for example, can set up a makerspace or media-lab facilities, where patrons can participate in classes or explore various DIY activities, from 3D printing and coding to podcast production and video editing.
It's just one more way today's libraries can serve their patrons, whether they are Gen Z, millennials or any other age group.