Released: October 23, 2012

Local libraries look to the young and a digital future

If you think all younger Americans have cut back on reading books and stopped using libraries, the Pew Research Center has news for you.

A Pew study being released today shows that 47 percent of Americans between the ages of 16 and 29 read books, magazines or newspapers on digital devices. And about 40 percent of those under-30 e-content readers say they spend more time reading now than they used to, thanks to the availability of e-content.

The study quotes a college-age participant saying that with the convenience of his e-reader, he has “developed a habit of reading in my spare time … and I am discovering more books to read on my device.”

Moreover, the telephone survey of 2,986 people 16 and older shows that 60 percent of Americans younger than 30 used the library in the past year. Of those younger than 30, 46 percent used the library for research and 38 percent borrowed print, audio or e-books.

But the research project also recognized that libraries could face problems continuing to connect with today’s high schoolers as digital delivery continues to grow.

“High schoolers are more likely than other age groups to use the library, including for research and book-borrowing,” said Kathryn Zickuhr, a Pew research analyst and co-author of the report. On the other hand, she pointed out, “almost half of 16-17-year-olds say that the library is not important or ‘not too important’ to them and their family — significantly more than other age groups.”

Researchers acknowledged that school assignments may have a significant influence in library use among high school students but noted that age group’s interest in mobile technology also may point toward further engagement with libraries later in life.

Gerald M. McKenna, director of Henrico County’s library system, with nine general libraries, a law library and a bookmobile, said the system actively reaches out to teenagers. “We have created study rooms, meeting rooms, collaborative spaces,” he said.

The system’s Tuckahoe and Twin Hickory libraries have vending-machine cafés that McKenna said are heavily used during after-school hours.

“These are spaces where you can make a little noise,” McKenna said, “and not affect the rest of the library.” He said that a certain amount of kidding around takes place in the café environment, “but by and large the kids are there getting their work done. We’ve worked hard to encourage that.”

Henrico hires librarians who specialize in younger users. “They have to like teens,” McKenna said. “It takes a unique person to understand and appreciate teens.”

The system also involves teenagers with what it calls a Volunteen program. “If they can’t get a summer job,” McKenna said, “they can volunteer with us and learn some skills that will help them.”

Thomas A. Shepley is director of the Pamunkey Regional Library that serves Hanover, Goochland, King William, and King and Queen counties and the towns of Ashland and West Point — an area generally more rural than the suburbs of Henrico.

In addition to events aimed at and space available for teens, Shepley said, the Pamunkey system also tries to match the pace of change for older patrons in the 16-29 cohort. He noted that the library can become a classroom for those seeking online degrees.

The Pamunkey territory, he said, includes areas that don’t have access to high-speed Internet, another factor that makes the library a valuable asset. “Maybe that degree is from Virginia Commonwealth University,” he said, “maybe it’s from the University of Kentucky. Either way, it’s as accessible as the library.

“I’ve seen a grad student in one of our libraries defending his thesis in front of his laptop,” Shepley said.

The study being released today says 83 percent of those ages 16 to 29 read at least one book last year — 19 percent read at least one e-book, with more reading on cellphones (41 percent) and computers (55 percent) than on e-book readers such as a Kindle (23 percent) or a tablet (16 percent).

McKenna and Shepley said e-books are a growing part of their service that is evolving as publishers decide whether and how they will release their books in that form.

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