Timeless Habit of Reading in a Changing World

by Rajika Jayatilake

In a world awash with technology, a lot habits and customs have changed. Much of this change is attributed to the millennial generation, the largest adult group today, making up 66 million of the world’s people. However, as English poet Rick Holland said, “The world belongs to those who read,” an observation that appears quite apt for millennials. Among things that are surprisingly unchanged, is the reading habit among millennials.

As various studies indicate, millennials frequent public libraries than any other age group today. They want to borrow reading material. Assistant Professor at New York’s Syracuse University School of Information Studies., Rachel Clarke astutely finds a plausible reason for this. Millennials are now of parenting age, and with the affection that parents, in general, have for libraries, it is probably a significant reason for millennials flocking to public libraries in large numbers. Pew Research studies indicate 56% of library users are parents with children younger than 18 years.

Recent research by Pew Research also indicates that over 80% of the 18-29 year old group read a book in some format, while older groups read much less. Millennials appear to be more purposeful in their reading, but there are also many who read for pleasure or to keep abreast with current news. Millennials do not favor print newspapers but as the American Press Institute finds, 69% of millennials read news in various formats every day. An article in Millennial Marketing quotes a study in the UK that found people on average read 72 minutes of news today, where they read 60 minutes in 2006. This increase is totally attributed to the under-35 groups. Pew Research finds that people keen on keeping up with news are more avid readers than others. Furthermore, they are not about to give up reading hard copy books, but as a generation with a passion for technology, they veer more towards e-books, smartphones and tablets. Pew Research Book Reading 2016 report says that Americans who did not attend college are more likely to read books on their cellphones, while college graduates are twice as likely to read print books and audio books. College degree holders will also gravitate more to Shakespeare quotes, and use the timeless Shakespearian turn of phrase to color their communication.

Public libraries have, for their part, tried to evolve and keep up with changing times. Once, libraries had a weighty and contemplative feel. There was a tangible feeling of reverence for knowledge and the power it bestowed, as people entered libraries. They were, then, reference centers to browse and borrow. Thereafter, Melvil Dewey introduced the Decimal System of library classification in the late 1800s, and forever changed the direction of library science, with the open stacks of books. Peterborough, New Hampshire in in the US has the honor of having the world’s first modern public library supported by taxes. It was, however a small public library. The first large public library supported with tax dollars was the Boston Public Library which opened to the public in 1854.

As libraries became more people-friendly, reading rooms came into being. With the arrival of the digital age, libraries geared up to be the bridge connecting people with the internet, and computers became part of the library service. Clarke observes that librarians, at this time had the foresight to plan for “emerging adults” and how best serve the first digital generation and those to come. She says, ““The results highlight an evolution in public libraries. There’s a lot more stuff going on at the library now and librarians are excited about trying new things.” According to Pew Research analysis, the public expect new services from public libraries, such as supporting local education, help local businesses, job seekers and those upgrading skills, also special group like veterans and immigrants.

In modern times, what appears to be the focus is not “science” but “design.” As Clarke says, “It’s about creating better experiences so people keep finding reasons to come to the library.” Public Libraries, today, have a light, airy, pleasing ambience, are environmentally friendly and open,   and exhibit different kinds of technology. With millennials being a generation into social connections, they are drawn to beer and book nights and afternoon coffee klatches, which are popular features at public libraries today. Thus, the function of libraries has evolved over the years, providing support to communities as they lived in changing times.

However, there is a timeless quality to the printed word that no amount of modernization can change. As Architectural Historian and Associate Professor at Pratt Institute School of Architecture, Meredith TenHoor, says, “There is a place for old-fashioned paper books. The publishing industry knows this, and it is reflected in high-quality library design, too.”

The place of books in public libraries in years to come is unshakeable. The Vice President of Capital Planning at the New York Public Library (NYPL), Risa Honig, says, the library’s branches are making “books more of an architectural presence.” NYPL’s circulation comprises 20% of e-books. The overall perspective is to let “books create the look and feel for the spaces. So they’re not only part of the design, they are a key part.”

American government official and journalist Carl Thomas Rowan, said, “The library is the temple of learning and learning has liberated more people than all the wars in history.”

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