Reading: The Account of My Death May Be Greatly Exaggerated!

PewIt seems among bibliophiles there are apocalyptic prophesies about the death of reading. A Pew Research Center Report titled Younger Americans and Public Libraries suggests that this may not be the case:

  • As it turns out, 88 percent of those under 30 had read a book in the past year as opposed to 79 percent of those over 30.  The group reading the most appears to be those aged 16-17. They also borrow the most books.
  • More of those under 30 (62 vs. 53 percent) believe there are a number of resources that cannot be found on the internet.
  • The use of library websites among those under 30 is growing (up from 28 percent to 36 percent in two years).
  • Among those 16-29, 43 percent of them read a book every day versus 40 percent of those over 30.

There are some gray patches in these silver-lined clouds:

  • Library visits have dropped in the past year from 58 to 50 percent. Those over 30 have also used libraries less (dropping from 52 to 47 percent).
  • Younger users of libraries are less aware of all the services that libraries offer.
  • They are also less likely to report it to be a pleasant place to be and valuable to their community.

As I’ve thought about this report I have some questions:

  • I wonder why reading actually seems to be declining with age. One thing in the study is that two activities did increase with age — watching TV and reading news sources (print and internet). Is there a connection?
  • I wonder how much of the reading in the 16-29 cohort is “have to” reading related to academic pursuits as opposed to voluntary reading.
  • Related to this, I wonder, “what are people reading?” I would probably agree that most forms of reading, apart from those that seem to celebrate gruesome violence or are pornographic in nature, are better than not reading. It is probably difficult to measure this because of some of the implied value judgments involved yet literacy means more than just reading any books but also involves engaging books of enduring quality.

Here are a few of my reflections:

  • One obvious one is that libraries face the challenge of making the experience of being at the library pleasurable for those 16 to 29. I suspect part of this is that socializing among this age group is important and being “shushed” so that others can read or research is unpleasant. Our local library has a separate area for socializing as well as a coffee bar, both isolated from the reading and computer areas.
  • I’ve always found reference librarians extremely helpful, particularly in finding the stuff you can’t find online as well as pointing me to the best sources. But I wonder if there isn’t an intimidation factor. It was only in college when I was working in my college’s Student Development Program and we had talks by reference librarians that I came to appreciate all they can do. I confess I am unaware of the outreach efforts being made in this area but wonder if partnerships between librarians and teachers, perhaps around specific research assignments could be helpful. Again, our local library does something very helpful in having reference librarians at standing kiosks rather than sitting behind intimidating desks.
  • I do think at any age, the pleasure of losing oneself in a book is probably key to feeding a lifelong love of reading. At the same time, as we age, I do find typography, lighting, and font sizes an important factor in ease of reading. Again, I wonder if both libraries and booksellers might do more to promote resources that help aging readers to continue to find reading pleasurable.
  • I still consider the issue of reading well and without distraction an important one to be considered in our wireless age. I’m not sure that e-readers will last as a technology we use and the other wireless devices tend to stream texts, tweets, Facebook updates and email unless one turns these off to read.
  • Lastly, it was interesting that although older readers tended to use the library less, they valued it more. I personally wonder if this a function of the accumulated experience of usefulness we gain over a lifetime. I also think older readers may be more rooted in a community and understand how libraries contribute to the fabric of a community.

At any rate, there are reasons in this report to be hopeful rather than pessimistic about the future of reading. I also think it points to the importance of understanding how people read and how those of us who value literacy might continue to usher others into a lifelong love of reading.


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