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I am a librarian by career choice. I am also one of those patrons that librarians both love and neglect. I place masses of holds, get my materials, pay my fines, use many of the Web-based resources, and can come and go without ever actually speaking to anyone who works in the library. This has been my modus operandi for the past fifteen years and it is my strong perception that most libraries are happy to keep it that way. As I continue through my 20s and am looking at my 30s very shortly, it's a place where I see a failing on the part of public libraries.
There has been a lot of change in public libraries from what I remember even from my own not particularly distant past. Summer Reading Programs have gone from a stickers posted on a paper star with my name on it on the library wall to daily and weekly programs, huge prizes, and an ever increasing number of statistics on circulation, hours read, and maintaining reading levels over the summer. Teen Services has gone from an awkward set of shelves and all of the Sweet Valley High books to entire rooms, dedicated librarians, focused programming and 98% of magazine covers in library literature for the past several years. And as the population in general and the librarian population has aged (this is not a myth nor an ageist statement—my library director pointed out in a staff meeting last week that 58% of our full time staff is over 50—we are not an anomaly), we are seeing an increased focus on services to the Boomer and Senior generations. These are all good and excellent things.
While we are addressing the needs of these specialized populations, we are failing to engage people who are a huge portion of our tax base and potential advocates: adults between the age of 20 and 40. When I speak to friends in my age group: smart, educated, engaged people—they do not use the library—either because they feel unwelcome, it's open at inconvenient hours (no evenings or weekends) or they just don't see any personal benefit until they become parents and are bringing their children to story times.
Public libraries have the opportunity to draw in 20-30s who have nowhere else that makes them feel particularly welcome. We've graduated and all of the support that we had through high school and college has suddenly dropped out from under us. It is becoming acknowledged as a cultural shift that the Millennials/Gen Y are, in general, delaying marriage and/or childbirth, and we have an entirely new generational type to reach out to with library services.
For at least the last decade, we’ve focused on the idea that teens needed their own dedicated space and resources and libraries have made a concerted, and largely successful, effort to step up and provide a place where teens could go, could express their own interests, would be welcome and relaxed and where they weren't required to spend money. Additionally, significant populations of students are thriving in the academic libraries with extraordinary outreach being done by their librarians. Are public libraries and adult services stepping up to the plate to meet the expectations and foundations our teen librarians and college librarians are struggling so hard to put into place? Too often, the answer is no.
This is not a problem solely in libraries; it extends to community organizations in general. Filling this gap is one of the reasons Starbucks has done so well: it's given young adults a non-alcoholic place to call our own, where we could be young and hip, can sit down and talk with a friend or be alone, and created a third place away from work and home. In these spaces, one is not identified by job, or marriage status, or affiliation. One can just be a person for the time and space of a cup of coffee. Community spaces are lacking and as we see Starbucks (and other coffee shops) across the nation close, here is an opportunity where libraries can step in if they are willing to reach out.
So why public libraries? Because we are a resource and a space already in place. We are a community center, whether it's part of our outlined mission or not, and because if these people don't see us as a valuable resource for them, why should they continue paying taxes to support us?
What can libraries do?
Appeal on a funky intellectual level. We miss the unique and interesting subjects that we explored in college--where we took philosophy, archaeology, Mayan history, or mid-18th century French literature. Now we sit in cubes, stare at computer screens, and spend much of our day absorbed in the present, the current, the Twitter and Facebook timestream. Shake us out, remind us of the cool things we used to study, get an engaging professor from a local uni, or a local expert on a strange subject. Give us an objective other than coming up with the most cutting and witty 140 characters of the day.
Make things available at our time. Yes, you have families and want to spend time with them. No, you can't assume that the single or young librarians on staff are going to pick up all the slack on this. Our time is just as important as yours. But many young adults work a weekday schedule and if that is when your book groups, computer classes, or interesting lecture series are--then there is no relevance to these working adults.
Give us a place where we can meet people. Once graduated, we no longer have new classes to introduce us to new people, nor the comfort of university coordinated groups and activities. Increasingly, we are relocating away from established circles of friends and family for jobs. Libraries can provide opportunities to make friends and make connections in our communities. It needs to be carefully thought out and marketed though. If programming is publicized as “family” or “all ages” events, it usually won’t attract young adults. Similarly, book groups or movie nights where the selections are obviously chosen to appeal to the Boomer or Golden generations will also turn off younger people looking for someone their own age.
Help us start our own businesses or get grants. We are told to start our own small businesses but are unaware how to, how to get funding, where to get space, who to market to or how to, what kind of government grants are out there. The Head of Reference at Lebanon Public Library set up a small business center in her library, collecting resources together and advertising to people in her small town that it was there. The former Business Specialist at Champaign Public Library went out to local businesses with his card and said "here, let me help you for free with no strings attached." He told me that he got a lot of skepticism, followed by a whole lot of enthusiasm.
Let us volunteer to do something other than dust books. I know, many places have rules in place about letting volunteers do things that are under staff purview. But Friends groups should hopefully come in all ages and with all kinds of unusual library promoting skills. Is there a way you could get volunteers in to help the library with marketing ideas, program presentations, training events, mobile websites, neat gadgets and gizmos? What pie-in-the-sky wish could you ask for that someone in the community might be able to provide?
Work with our needs. It's 2010 and libraries need to figure out a way to have online fine payment. My library is working on it; is yours? We learn through online classes and online tutorials—create some for your website/library or hire somebody to do it. Have programs specifically targeted at this age group: budgeting, paying off student loans, buying our first houses, how to get into graduate school, networking and developing your personal brand online with LinkedIn and other sites, going green, decorating or recycling in small spaces for apartment dwellers etc so on and so forth. Appeal to us as adults, not just people making your circ stats go up or being responsible for bringing kids in to the many YS programs. Young parents would like to be treated like adults separate from being parents, too.
You might need to serve alcohol. I know many libraries can't do this, but could you partner with a bar or local wine shop who would be willing to host an off site library program? I might not go to the bar on my own just to sit and feel odd drinking alone, but hearing a cool library-sponsored lecture at the local wine shop is something even the hesitant loner can get into.
Tell us the obvious stuff. You don't always have to hide marketing behind fancy and vague signs and messages. What if you just put up a subway/bus sign that said, "Free Downloads for Your mp3 and E-book Reader at your the Library. (your URL)," or "Why Pay for Text Answers to Questions? Text the Library at 55555," or "Save Money and Go Green: Use a Public Library," or "Remember Reading that Wasn't Required? We have Fun Books too," or "Libraries = Stuff You've Already Paid For With Your Tax Dollars." What might happen then?
Libraries run the risk of alienating a group who could be our strongest and most dynamic users and advocates. But we also have the chance to help these people make positive human connections, to further their education, to develop themselves and create new ideas, businesses, stories, and opportunities. It is our obligation to engage this lost generation to ensure the future vitality of our libraries. It may take a shift to think beyond appealing to families and the specialized age groups but I encourage you to do so. Otherwise you might miss the majority of adults who walk through the doors or who walk past thinking a library is only a place for children and retirees.
by Abigail Goben
La Crosse Public Library