Gen Z and Millennials Embrace Public Libraries, Reigniting a Love for Traditional Reading Spaces

The enchanting aroma of ancient tomes in school libraries and the thrill of uncovering new reads amidst towering stacks have delighted many of us. Contrary to the belief that the younger generation is drifting towards e-books and away from traditional libraries, recent findings tell a different story. A study conducted by the American Library Association in November 2023 has unveiled a surprising trend: public libraries are witnessing a revival, spearheaded by Gen Z and millennials. Astonishingly, over half of the 43% of Gen Z and millennials, who don’t primarily identify as avid readers, have been frequenting their local libraries over the past year.

In a comprehensive survey involving 2,075 Gen Z and millennials in 2022, it emerged that a significant portion of them not only visited public libraries but also explored their digital collections. Rachel Noorda, a researcher from Portland State University and one of the study’s authors, shared an optimistic view, “It’s heartening to see that younger generations are not just reading and purchasing books but are also making libraries a part of their lives. Beyond books, they are immersing themselves in various forms of media, embracing their roles as gamers, readers, writers, and enthusiasts, fluidly navigating between different media types and formats.”

Libraries for these generations extend beyond mere repositories of books. They have evolved into dynamic spaces that cater to a wide range of activities, from gaming to music production. “Libraries have traditionally been viewed as sanctuaries of silence, and while they still offer quiet corners, we’ve observed that Gen Z finds libraries to be vibrant community hubs where they can engage in diverse activities,” Noorda explained to The Guardian. This shift underscores libraries’ role not only as places for individual exploration but also as venues for community building.

Henry Grey Earls, an art student in New York City known as @henry_grey_earls on TikTok, has captured the attention of millions by sharing his library experiences against the picturesque backdrop of the Bryant Park library. “My generation craves authenticity, and what’s more authentic than the tactile feel of books and tangible materials?” he remarked. Despite the convenience of digital books, the aesthetic appeal of physical books continues to resonate on social media platforms. Kathi Inman Berens, co-author of the ALA study, emphasized the importance of the physicality of books, stating, “The tangible presence of a book adds a visual dimension that is irreplaceable.”

The concept of a “third place,” as coined by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, highlights the need for spaces beyond home and work where people can gather and socialize. Anika Neumeyer, a 19-year-old volunteer at the Seattle Public Library, pointed out the unique position of libraries in this context. “Unlike coffee shops, which can get overcrowded and necessitate spending money, libraries offer a welcoming environment free from the pressure of constant activity. It’s a space where judgment is suspended,” she shared.

Abby Hargreaves, a librarian in Washington DC who shares insights into her profession on TikTok under the handle @24hourlibrary, has noticed a romanticization of libraries among Gen Z. “There’s a prevailing notion of embarking on grand adventures in the library. However, this enthusiasm is contrasted by challenges, including budget cuts and legislative attempts to ban books,” Hargreaves observed.

While legislative efforts in places like Idaho aim to restrict access to certain materials and impose penalties on libraries that contravene these laws, the growing affection for libraries among Gen Z paints a contrasting picture. Anna Murphy, a librarian at the Berkeley Caroll School in Brooklyn, reflected on this dichotomy, “It’s peculiar to see Gen Z’s love for libraries being celebrated, even as we face challenges like reduced services and longer waits for books. It seems we’re caught between two opposing narratives.”

This resurgence of interest in libraries among younger generations, coupled with the challenges they face, underscores the complex relationship between Gen Z’s digital nativity and their appreciation for the tangible, communal experiences libraries offer. As libraries continue to adapt and evolve, they remain indispensable sanctuaries of knowledge, creativity, and community for all ages.