Most book lovers find the question, What good is a library, silly. “For research and for checking out books,” is the answer to that question, of course.
I couldn’t agree more. The day my mother escorted me to the library for the first time–to obtain a library card, no less–I fell madly in love–to obtain a library card, no less.
I must have been three or four–whatever the minimum age was to become a card-carrying member of the library community. I remember standing in the library’s entry and looking at the array of books before me. That so many books existed was causing my brain to explode. The fragrance of all those pages wafted in the air, and I took a deep breath of the aroma. In that moment, I made a pledge to myself, which, sadly, I never did fulfill. I promised myself that I would read every book in that building. I did my level best, but, nope, I grew up and moved away without making it through every book.
More than Books
But I’ve noted lately that libraries offer so much more than books. Our community library offers tools to check out. Need a wheelbarrow for a garden project? Our library probably has one. Want to check out an electric drill rather than purchase one? Yup, the tool library is the place to look.
I recently read an article on the Boston library system, which you can read in full here. The author of the article, Tom McGrath, noted that libraries offer story hours, tech sessions, and reading groups. As a matter of fact, the library gets plenty of use. “Last year, the BPL [Boston Public Library] had more than 2.1 million visits and loaned out some 660,000 print books and 3.8 million digital items,” the article states.
McGrath goes on to explain the expansive services of the Boston library:
…Where else, I ask, can you not only borrow a book or get an answer to a question that plagues you but also get help with your taxes? Or take a cooking class? Or meet up with people who like Legos? Or get married?
As McGrath interviewed the library staff, he found that they see books as the baseline for what the building offers. But there’s so much more.
Grove Hall, a branch of the library, brings these services to its community: “ESL classes. Sewing workshops for teens. Mixers for seniors. Family movie nights. Painting and creative-writing workshops held in conjunction with MassArt and GrubStreet. Health information sessions held in conjunction with the Boston Public Health Commission. An annual summer tea party organized by the branch’s children’s librarian, as well as an annual ice cream social. The list goes on. And those are just the formal programs. Every day…people come in needing assistance with something—from looking for a new job to setting up a new phone—and the library staff spring into action. Tech help, in particular, is a common request. During COVID, Grove Hall and other branches boosted their WiFi networks so that they were available outside the building, and that’s now become an essential service in many Boston neighborhoods.” People gather on the library’s steps to access the WiFi during the hours the library is closed.
Ultimately, McGrath concludes, a library becomes a community’s gathering spot. And, yes, that includes a warm and safe place for the homeless as long as they are quiet and don’t disturb others.
That little girl in me who stood on the precipice of the world of the library on her first visit could never have conceived all that a library can do.
While it’s great that a library can be a hub of sorts to a community, what does the future hold for them? Are younger generations using libraries?
The American Library Association took a survey with more than two thousand Gen Z and Millennials to find out how integrated into their lives libraries are. You can read a more complete summary of the findings here.
Surprisingly, Gen Z and Millennials are using public libraries at higher rates than older Americans—but not necessarily for the books. Fifty-four percent of Gen Z and Millennials (ages 13-40) visited a physical library within a twelve-month period—including 23% who did not identify as readers. At the same time, younger library users are reading—and buying—books, the report finds, with 52% saying they have borrowed from library digital collections, with a “distinct preference” for print.
What Good is a Library to Gen Z’s and Millennials?
The survey found that coding clubs, job application help, and gaming draw even non-readers to the library, as does the physical space where they can connect and collaborate. (Back to the idea of the library being a community gathering place.) Having places in the library for teens to gather is an important element of what a library offers.
Where Does This Group Discover Books?
In addition to these insights, the survey found that Gen Z’s and Millennials also visit libraries to discover books, and the same goes for bookstores. “Some 58% of Gen Z and Millennials bought a book in a bookstore in the prior twelve months. More than a third (35%) of those bought a book because they were browsing at the store.”
Subscription services such as Audible, Radish, and Webtoon (web comics) also are popular.
Another book-discovery source is Instagram or TikTok book reviews or ads.
And lastly, the survey uncovered another important fact about this reading group: Given a choice, 59% of Gen Z and Millennials would choose the graphic/manga version of a story rather than a text-only book.
What Good is a Library to You?
What services do you turn to your local library for? If you could have your wish, what would your library would do differently or add to what it offers?