Close your eyes and imagine someone at the public library. How old are they?
Millennials — the generation currently ranging in age from 18 to 35 — and the biggest library users, said the surprising results of a national survey released in late June by Pew Research Center.
The nonpartisan research firm found that 53 percent of millennials had used a public library or bookmobile in the previous 12 months, while 45 percent of Generation X-ers said they had. Among baby boomers, 43 percent said they’d used a library within a year, and just 36 percent of the silent generation had done so.
The results defied our expectations — aren’t millennials too tied to their phones to care about libraries or print books?
We reached out to our public libraries in Wellington, Oberlin, and Amherst to find out whether the Pew findings held true here at home. Directors at all three didn’t have numbers of their own, but anecdotally said they don’t see millennials as the number one library users.
“We’re seeing probably the 30 to 50s,” said Janet Hollingsworth of theHerrick Memorial Library in Wellington. “A lot of them are coming in and using our computers to learn how to do resumes, file for jobs, and file for unemployment.”
Visitors in their 60s and 70s have a strong showing, she said. They generally prefer to have a physical book in hand rather than dabble in e-books.
Families with young children are another big library consumer. “They remember coming here when they were children. It’s cyclical,” Hollingsworth said.
Darren McDonough of the Oberlin Public Library said he sees a very even mix of ages come through his doors.
Millennials don’t seem to be big readers of traditional books, though they could be checking out e-books. Traditionally, moms with small children are a core group, supporting storytimes and checking out picture books, romance novels, and general fiction, he said.
For a time, millennials were driving DVD circulation. That’s dropped off in recent years — the Bluray format has proven a flop as movie-lovers opt for streaming video services such as Netflix and Hulu.
Don Dovala of the Amherst Public Library said books still drive visits and they attract all ages. How-to guides, such as cookbooks, are popular on the non-fiction side, but fiction circulation is the library’s biggest business.
Programming is becoming more and more popular, he said.
Earlier this year, Ohio Gov. John Kasich touted the strength of the state’s libraries, saying they should evolve into “continuous learning centers.” It should be noted that Ohio’s two-year budget, developed by Kasich, begins with $7 million in cuts for 2018 — but libraries are generally moving toward a community learning center model, local directors told us.
Dovala said storytimes are extremely popular and crowds of a couple hundred children can show up to summer reading program events such as magic shows. Adult offerings such as art classes or health seminars routinely draw 30 to 60 people.
People want to learn a crafty skill, Hollingsworth agreed: “They want to learn things they can possibly turn into a cottage industry.”
“We’ve done jewelry making and people love that,” she said. “We’ve done one where we taught artisan bread-making, and I know there are some people now who sell artisan bread at the farmers market.”
In Oberlin, McDonough said the library is seen as a valuable meeting space for small group gatherings, political organization, and government presentations. It’s regularly used by the local American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP, tree and cemetery preservation groups, genealogists, Oberlin Business Partnership, and environmental lobbyists.
It’s also simply a cool place to rest and use open WiFi, he said. That’s a service millennials appreciate.
Pew Research says millennials are the most likely age group to use library websites, too. It is the first generation born with high-tech gadgets in hand.
“Relatively high library use by millennials might be related to changes that many public libraries have undergone in the past 20 years,” the firm said. “Previous Pew Research Center surveys have documented how extensively people use computers and Internet connections at libraries, as well as how interested they are in extra services such as literacy programs for young children, meeting spaces for community groups, and technology ‘petting zoos’ that provide opportunities to explore 3-D printers and other tech gadgetry.”
There is bad news: The number of people who have visited a library in person has fallen from 53 percent in November 2012 to 46 percent in November 2016, according to the survey. The number of those who’ve used a library website has climbed six points to 31 percent over the same period.
The high-water mark for library visits was prompted by the Great Recession, when 53 percent of people ages 16 and older said they had visited a library or bookmobile within the previous 12 months.
Many of those visits were fueled by job searches.
Other key findings from Pew:
• Women are more likely than men to say they visited a public library or bookmobile (54 percent versus 39 percent) within a year.
• College graduates are more likely than high school graduates (56 percent versus 40 percent) to use the library.
• Unsurprisingly, parents with young children are more likely to use libraries (54 percent versus 43 percent).
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.