Millennials rock

As longtime readers know, I used to work in a public library and transitioned back to academia a little over a year ago. In both cases I’ve been in management roles, and have been bothered by the negative stereotypes attributed to millennials. So I was pleased to see a new report by Pew Research Center that notes “Millennials in America are more likely to have visited a public library in the past year than any other adult generation.”

Wait, didn’t I just say I’m a university librarian? Yes, but I have always been and will always be a public library advocate — if you’ve read Nocturnal Librarian before, or scroll through my older posts, you’ll see I believe strongly that public libraries are the most important public institution in America. Plus, the report said some things that academic librarians should note:

Pew defines millennials as 18-35, which is also the age of many (although certainly not all) college and university students. The survey asked about public library use, and Pew makes sure to explain: “It is worth noting that the question wording specifically focused on use of public libraries, not on-campus academic libraries.” So, even if they are visiting campus libraries, they may also be visiting public libraries. Or — and this is growing more likely all the time — they may be taking courses remotely and visiting their local public library. They may be using the college or university library’s website; in fact, a link to those resources is very probably embedded in their course management systems and in syllabi. I’d be very interested to know if students consider a visit to their college library’s website, full of eBooks, eJournals, and databases, a visit to the library?

I saw my public library’s website as a virtual branch and that view was becoming more widespread among my colleagues, and I am beginning to hear about this idea in academic library circles as well. I think it’s important to let students know that they can “enter” the library online and in most universities, access whatever they need to be successful. Accrediting bodies are looking at whether the same academic resources are available to online students. it just makes sense to design and promote the website, then, as an extension of the library.

Which bring me to the other point I found heartening in the Pew report: “College graduates are more likely than those whose education ended with a high school diploma to use libraries or bookmobiles in the past 12 months (56% vs. 40%). And a similar gap applies to use of library websites.” So those of us who work in academic libraries may be contributing to lifetime library use. And that is good for all of us, and our communities.

Millennials rock for many reasons — and I’m not just saying that because I am the parent of one (or two, according to Pew. My younger offspring is either a millennial or a Gen Z, depending on whose demographic definition you believe). But their use of libraries is one of my favorite reasons.

 

Digital attention spans

Like many academic libraries, mine holds a vast number of full text journals online, via our databases as well as some electronic serials subscriptions. So I was interested to see a recent article arguing that perhaps the internet hasn’t killed attention spans, and readers are capable of taking in longer articles online.

Except when I read it, I learned that the Pew study the article references didn’t paint nearly as rosy a picture when you dig into it. First of all the study was examining internet news consumption, which is arguably easier to read than academic journal articles. Pew found that “the total engaged time with articles 1,000 words or longer averages about twice that of the engaged time with short-form stories: 123 seconds compared with 57.”

123 seconds per long article. I was curious about the average words read in a minute, so I looked that up. According to both The Guardian and The Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science the average adult reads about 300 words per minute. So, if people are spending 123 seconds, or just over two minutes, on articles over 1000 words, they are probably reading just over half or less, depending on the article’s length.

That may very well be the reality of the digital journal reading. Who among us hasn’t skimmed to get to the part of an article we wanted to read, skipping stuff that doesn’t seem as relevant or important? I’ve done it, especially at work. I think this kind of reading can be important when time is short and the material I’m trying to tackle is voluminous. I’d also argue that our educational system promotes this kind of skimming for comprehension because it’s an essential skill for standardized test taking.

But when I do have time, say on a relaxing Sunday afternoon, to read every word of a long article in the newspaper or from a pile of magazines that stacks up all week, or to dive deeply into a good book, I savor that kind of reading. So for me, print triggers a desire to “slow read,” and electronic content seems to motivate me to skim. But that could be a factor of where and when I am doing each kind of reading. Work isn’t conducive to “slow reading.” Home is.

Regardless of how I or anyone else feels about digital or print reading, I think what really caught my eye is that Pew merely found in its study that people are engaging with long form online content, but the article I found (linked in an OCLC newsletter, as I recall) seems to think the study proves the Internet hasn’t diminished attention spans. That seems like a logical fallacy to me. I’ll be interested to speak with students in the fall to see how they feel about reading digital content and how engaged they are with what they read online. It’s an important, and very basic, question for academic librarians to ask as more and more of our materials are available digitally. Are our users engaged with the resources we’re providing?

 

 

 

Being countercultural

A few weeks ago I had a conversation that’s stayed with me. I was speaking with a group of people when someone pointed out that libraries are countercultural. I think what he was saying is that the existence of a place where everyone, for free, can enter and read and learn whatever he or she desires is really pretty mind-blowing if you think about it.

But is what we’re doing really counter to the prevailing culture? I guess libraries are sort of a part of the “slow” movement. Like cooking from scratch or making things by hand, reading and learning are time consuming, in a culture where many people prefer to do things as quickly as possible – although James Patterson is trying to make reading speedier by publishing books that can be read in one sitting. Regardless of the cultural preference for speed, the Pew Research Center reports that Americans have a very strong affinity for lifelong learning. And there wouldn’t be slow or maker movements if people weren’t willing to invest time in these pursuits, so maybe slowness isn’t all that at odds with the culture. Nor is learning.

What about reading? The media likes to report that no one reads, but again, looking to Pew, that just isn’t true. In their report on reading in America in 2013, the center notes that a large majority of adults read at least one book in the previous year, and not just rich well educated adults. Across their demographic measures, readers were in the majority.

So if taking one’s time to do something worthwhile, learning, and reading are more common than not, what is it that seems countercultural about libraries? Perhaps it’s that we’re open to absolutely everyone, and funded by all for the common good? That we seek to provide diverse materials to every community we serve? That we not only offer public space, but also quiet — there are very few places in the world where people can enjoy relative silence. That libraries do not just offer books and other materials but cherish their existence? That free access to information is libraries’ birthright and highest ideal?

There are many ways libraries are countercultural, and every person will probably have a slightly different take on how this is so. But it’s helpful and to me, comforting, to note that in important ways we are more in step with the culture around us than not.

More hand wringing and some hope

This was going to be a post about how good it was to meet colleagues at ALA Midwinter Meeting in Boston Monday, hearing what’s going on in their libraries and what they are doing to serve their communities. I didn’t spend as much time there as I did at PLA a couple of year’s ago, but I did meet some people and exchanged ideas and had a LOT of fun giving my Ignite talk. I also had the chance to hear a presentation fromLee Rainie, director of Internet, Science, and Technology at Pew Research Center, on their public library research (if you read Nocturnal Librarian regularly you know I’m a fangirl), which made me grateful to my fellow Americans who are life-long learners and library lovers in large majorities.

But then someone posted a strangely out of touch article from the Wall Street Journal on our state-wide librarians’ email list, “In the Age of Google, Librarians Get Shelved.” The author’s point is mainly that professional librarians are obsolete (because of Google? I can’t imagine this was really written by a librarian) and are being replaced with younger, techier, less skilled and less formally educated “assistants.” First of all, the issue of paraprofessional staffing in libraries where once there were many more people with masters degrees is as much about the general outcry against taxation that has gripped America in the past decades, the bursting of pubic pension funds and rising costs of health care, the slashing of municipal budgets, and the trend in both public and private sector to hire more part-time and lower wage hourly workers and fewer salaried full timers who cost their employers extra in benefits as well as pay. It’s also, dare I say, reflective of a lack of understanding of what we do on the part of people who read an article like this one and think they have an accurate picture of libraries today.

Second of all, I don’t know where or when the author got his own degree, or if he even has one, but clearly he missed any courses or training in research. As I’ve frequently written here, libraries may be evolving in terms of offering more technology and picking up the slack in providing jobs related assistance (resume writing, online training, search assistance, etc.), social service referrals and assistance (including a good bit of unofficial homeless shelter-ing and services for immigrants), and as I’ve heard more and more lately, offering meeting space for small groups when those spaces are disappearing.

But what we do — connecting people with information and resources and even more essentially, helping them navigate the tsunami of information that the author notes many find via Google. — is the same core mission libraries have always had, our materials just come in more formats. And yes we also provide important resources, increasingly, for entrepreneurs, freelancers, consultants, and telecommuters who prefer to work where the WiFi is free, they don’t feel compelled to buy coffees or meals, and they can spread out at a desk or table without being asked not to linger. Oh, and they can get expert research assistance, access to databases, newspapers, magazines, books, etc., anytime, for free.

Professional librarians and paraprofessionals alike are trained to provide information literacy (determining the reliability and/or bias of information, safely and securely navigating the Internet, etc.), a key component of being a self-sufficient adult in our society. We also provide early literacy for free to families — at a time when politicians can mostly only bicker about it. And programs for all ages (also free), and some of the only quiet spaces left in America that are open to all, as a benefit of citizenship. No, we don’t shush people anymore, but most libraries, save maybe the tiniest, offer some haven for those who need to study, read, or think in peace.

At any rate, librarians are not going away, and libraries offer so much more at our reference desks than looking up facts and figures (there isn’t much demand for those anymore anyway, just listen to what passes for public discourse). Yes we also make change, point out where the bathrooms are, and help people find their print jobs, and most of us have fewer physical reference books to refer to. But you know what? We can still find a lot more than the average person and so much more than Google to work with. I wonder if that writer has even heard of the deep web? No, it’s not some kind of spy game, it’s all the stuff that lurks below the www surface, that your local skilled librarian can help you find. Just ask. We’re still here for you, and we’re not going anywhere. Thankfully, since most people are interested in learning and admire libraries, I am hopeful that more people know that than don’t.

 

The Good the Bad and the Snowy

It’s snowed an awful lot here in northern New England in the past two weeks, as you’ve likely heard in news briefs. We’ve had feet of snow and the forecast is for snow today, snow tomorrow, snow right into the next day.  It’s a good time to read, all snug and warm inside. It’s not so great for slogging off to work, but we all manage.  Today my library is hosting an “Over the Rainbow Songfest” (we’re singing along to a film with Dorothy, Toto, et all, but our movie license forbids me from revealing the title). We’re hoping people are tired of staying in and will come out in costume to have a good time despite the white stuff falling from the sky.

In the library world, there’s been good news and bad this week. Close to home for me, in Brattleboro, Vermont, a janitor left millions of dollars to the benefit of others, including his local public library. Woot! In Great Britain it’s National Library Day and the Guardian‘s books blog is celebrating with shelfies.

In Wales, cuts threaten to reduce library services in Cardiff but people came out in large numbers this weekend to voice their support. Across America, there continues to be strong public support of libraries as well — 95% find them important, according to Pew — but municipal leaders do not necessarily reflect this value in their budgets. It’s budget season in many library systems, and as we all work to make our numbers as lean and workable as possible, we hold our collective breaths and also dream a bit of what we could do if funding reflected the love of libraries we share with so many of our fellow citizens.

That said, just as we manage to muddle through storms and carry on with the job at hand, we’ll carry on, in libraries large and small, the world over. I posted a review of When Books Went to War this morning on bookconscious; author Molly Guptill Manning describes how librarians came together during WWII not only to provide books to servicemen through a national book drive, but also to champion the books and author banned in Nazi occupied Europe and here at home. Librarians are resilient and books cannot die. I salute my colleagues in Cardiff and hope the tide will turn for them.

Future libraries

Last week the Slate article “What Will Become of the Library” by Michael Agresta burned up bookish social media circles. Much of what Agresta discusses I’ve written about on Nocturnal Librarian as well; he even mentions “book mountain” in the Netherlands.

He posits that bookless libraries are “almost inevitable” and goes over all the ways libraries are “reinventing” themselves. He covers maker spaces and innovation stations, and the “interventionist” role public libraries have in serving the “dispossessed of the digital age” – namely the homeless. And like so many others he asks whether “patching the gaps of the fraying social safety net” is or should be libraries’ role. (Agresta wasn’t alone on that topic last week — several newspapers covered recent ordinances prohibiting bathing, anti-social behavior, and sleeping in libraries across the country. I can report that in my library’s case, very few homeless patrons actually engage in those activities. A few hard cases make bad law, and always have, but I digress).

Stop yawning.

Having recently read Alfie Kohn’s excellent book The Myth of the Spoiled ChildI’ve become hyper-aware of how some media outlets are a sort of echo chamber of unsupported theories. I don’t know about your public library, but mine is nowhere near, now or in the foreseeable future, becoming a bookless downloadable maker space. There are a few exceptions, but I would guess, having chatted with a broad cross-section of my fellow public librarians at PLA 2014 last month, that most American libraries are much as they were a generation or two ago, albeit with more technology for both staff and patrons and new material on their shelves.

While journalists crow about our impending demise, we are frequently welcoming more people than ever, and not just the homeless; we serve, as we always have, every demographic, rich and poor, old and young, recent immigrant and Mayflower descendant. Are some libraries experiencing lack of growth? Yes. Is that caused by the coming digital smiting of traditional library services? A classic error of assuming causation. Sure, some libraries are losing patrons, for any of the reasons any service oriented business loses “market share,” like poor management or inadequate marketing.

People do visit their libraries for social interaction, as Agresta notes, but they aren’t all printing 3D gadgets or collaborating in a computer lab. Lots of people are attending lectures and classes, story times and book discussions just as they always have, and checking out physical books. Very few library patrons (or any other readers) choose ebooks exculsively — just 4%, according to the Pew Research Center. Many folks still want a quiet space to read or study, and we have that too, just as we always have.

Why the endless chatter about how different we are and how much we’ll have to keep changing when we are in fact, in cities and towns across America, essentially the same? I will allow that I am speculating as well, but I do have the benefit of a network of professionals whose anecdotal evidence indicates that issuing library cards, lending materials, providing information, recommending good books, and putting on programs are still the bulk of their daily work. Just as they were when my grandmother was a librarian. Pew notes that the presence of a library (in the traditional sense I’ve described) is highly valued across generations all over America. Will some communities choose new and different library services? Sure, but I’d bet even those still check out books, every day.

As for Agresta’s “book-oriented library, where it survives in defiance of the digital shift, tends to take on the aspect of a temple for this sort of focused, old-fashioned study and contemplation?” My reaction ranges from “get over yourself ” to “temple, schmemple.” Come browse our romance novels, our large print westerns, our People Magazine and Mother Earth News, our dystopian YA, zombie and horror paperbacks, our Value Line and Cat Fancy and cozy mysteries and chicklit and Amish fiction and inspirational memoirs, our self-help and car repair guides, our cookbooks and comics, and DIY, and then we’ll talk.

Now hear this: Real people, of all kinds, read all kinds of stuff they checked out at their local public libraries. It’s not a catchy lede, but it’s reality.

 

The case for the written and printed word

A few weeks ago I was driving to Vermont to see my college-student son, listening to NPR, and heard this interview with Texas judge and former San Antonio mayor Nelson Wolff, the man behind “Bibliotech” the “bookless library.” As I’ve written here before, Wolff clearly doesn’t know much about the obstacles publishers place on library e-books: burdensome pricing structures, limits on the number of check-outs, etc., which result in long waits for popular titles. He promotes his model as fiscally prudent, but seems not to worry about spending tax dollars on e-books licenses, which expire, unlike physical books, which are libraries’ to keep for as long as they can be mended. And let’s not forget that e-readers and tablets break, wear out, or become obsolete as new technologies come along.

In the interview with Scott Simon, Wolff noted one goal of Bibliotech, to “bring technology to a area of the city that is economic disadvantaged, highly minority, and do not have access to the Internet and the various modes that we have to access it. So we provide eBook readers that they can check out.” If the readers are pre-loaded with e-books, this makes a little sense, but it doesn’t explain: a) how people without internet access benefit from borrowing a device that requires an internet connection to maximize its use and b) why providing internet access and devices has to exclude access to printed books, which are also not common in low-income households. Also, nowhere in any of the coverage of Bibliotech have I read anything about whether librarians or library patrons were asked about their needs.This is one man’s dream, and that’s how it should be reported.

Wolff,  like  much of the press, is also behind the curve on e-books: the Pew Research Center notes that younger library users (16-29) value technology but also read print books at higher rates than older Americans (75% of Americans 16-29 have read a print book in the last year), and studies show e-books sales have leveled off or are declining (Nicholas Carr offers insightful reasons for this at that same link). In Canada, they have fallen to 15% of the book market. In the UK, e-books are 9% of the book market, and in the U.S., e-books are just under 25% market share. That’s it. But you didn’t know that, because the reporting is “1 in 4 books are e-books” not “3 in 4 books are printed.”

That hardly sounds like something to devote an entire new library building to, does it? I think the smarter way to go is to incorporate technology into library offerings, and to respond to the actual needs of local library users. Many of whom are looking for more than technology. They want places to meet and connect with their neighbors, according to sources as varied as the Pew Research Center and the people of Effingham, New Hampshire, who are delighted with the improvements made to their public library and are flocking to events, the most popular of which is “Writer’s Night,” in which “the community turns out to hear presentations by writers,” then “play music, recite poetry, read a passage from a favorite book,” during open mic.  Bravo to Marilyn Swan, the resourceful library director who is working on making her library — and the written word —  a vital part of Effingham life.

Another story that cheered me a bit: in England, students used 400-year-old maps from the British Library to create authentic and very high tech 3D gaming worlds for a competition. These young people, steeped in technology, are seeing library collections come to life in their work. Well done, British Library and city of Nottingham, which sponsors the GameCity “festival of video game culture.” The Daily Mail reports, “The primary objective of the competition was to inspire innovation among students and merge rich visual sources from the past with industry-leading technology.” Not to mention getting them into the archives of the venerable British Library, and giving them reason to value preserving print materials.