How libraries are luring more millennials

By on

by Karen Shuey, courtesy of Reading Eagle

The Reading Public Library (PA) is the place Porshia Maldonado goes to escape the bustling city outside.

In here, silence is golden. In here, she can learn about the wonders of the world. In here, she can find the answer to any question in a matter of seconds.  And she said the best part is that everything is free. 

The 24-year-old Reading resident, who said she tries to stretch her budget as far as possible, spends a few hours each day working as an online mystery shopper from the computer lounge or scanning the bookshelves for interesting titles.  "This is probably my favorite place in the whole world," she said. "I love coming to the library."

Maldonado is not alone.  It may seem strange, but it turns out the biggest users of public libraries today are millennials like Maldonado.

A national analysis from the Pew Research Center found that 53 percent of millennials, people ages 18 to 35, have used a public library or bookmobile within the last 12 months. That's compared with 45 percent of Gen Xers (ages 36 to 51), 43 percent of baby boomers (ages 52 to 70) and 36 percent of people in the silent generation (ages 71 to 88).

While some librarians in Berks County say millennials make up a small percentage of people using local libraries, they were not surprised by the results of the national analysis. They say the findings are a reflection of how libraries have changed over the past two decades.

Bronwen Gamble, executive director of Reading Public Library, pointed out that libraries have been adding digital resources to attract younger audiences. She said today's libraries offer everything from free internet connections to electronic books to streaming services.  "One of our fastest growing branches are people we may not even see in person," she said. "They log onto our website or download our app to use services. And since they know how to do that on their own, it's a seamless process."

Gamble said there has been an effort in recent years to get more millennials into the Reading Public Library by offering a Cinema Club and hosting an annual Comic Con festival. But the most popular feature, she said, has turned out to be the library's Wi-Fi connection.

Reading residents Frederick Veras, 27, and Alexander Gonzalez, 33, said they stop by the library two or three times a week to charge their cellphones while they use the desktops to watch videos or fill out job applications.  "We come here for the free entertainment," Veras said.

"And we use the computers to look for job openings," Gonzalez added.

Susan Lopez, director of the Boyertown Community Library, said she thinks more people would take advantage of the free services libraries offer if they knew about them.  "There are still some people who don't even know we exist, or they have this outdated image of what a library is," Lopez said. "We don't go around shushing people anymore."

Lopez said some libraries are even partnering with local bars to host book groups or opening coffee shops to attract millennials. And while those initiatives may be limited to urban centers right now, she said more libraries are getting creative with their programming. 

Blending the new with the old is the key to success, said Julia Lipkowitz, who just took on the role as director of Boone Area Library after graduating in May from Muhlenberg College. Lipkowitz said she has a pretty good understanding of why people from her age group are flocking to libraries.

"With all the technology and social media out there today, it can be very easy to get absorbed in constant stimulation from all these different directions," she said. "There is something peaceful about just sitting with a book and really getting into the literature."

Maldonado said that's exactly how she feels.  "I sit in front of a computer screen all day to work, so reading a book is kind of relaxing," she said.