Millennials, Libraries, & the Internet: A Long-Term Outlook for the Short-Term Attention Span

Sarah Corsie

PUB 800

John Maxwell

9 December 2015


Millennials, Libraries, & the Internet:

A Long-Term Outlook for the Short-Term Attention Span


Whether or not they deserve it, millennials get a pretty bad rap. We’re lazy, we’re entitled, we’re narcissistic, (just type ‘millennials are’ into your Google search bar and see!), and, of course, we’re glued to our smartphones. We are a generation of instant gratification, redefining and modernizing hedonism, exemplified by our dependence on technology. We are the “two-screen generation,” living our entire lives out online, constantly connected and arguably disconnected simultaneously. Things move and change quickly in the millennial world, with planned obsolescence taking the concept of keeping up with the Joneses —­ or perhaps more appropriately, the Kardashians — to the next level. Immersion in an online world means rapid exposure and an almost immediate turn over of information. How can a generation that consumes content so rapidly be invested in something as archaic as the print book?

To the surprise of all generations, millennials are just as invested in literature as their predecessors. In fact, millennials are reading more those previous generations. According to the most recent data curated by the Pew Research Center on millennial reading habits, 43 % of participants age 16-29 (for consistency, assume that all following usage of the term ‘millennials’ refers to this age demographic) reported reading a book (print, audiobook, or e-book) every day or almost every day, while only 40% of those over 30 reported the same regularity of reading (Zickuhr & Rainie 9).

Not only are millennials reading more than previous generations, we are reading differently. As noted by millennial marketing experts Jeff Fromm and Greg Vodicka, millennials are “good scanners” who are reading “with purpose.” In order to grab the millennial reader, design is crucial to presenting information, and material must be “presented in an attractive and easily digestible way.” Molly Soat also indicates the importance of the visual depiction of reading material to the millennial generation, stating that readers will be drawn in by the creation of “visual content to accompany long-form written works.” Since millennials are more attracted to material that is quickly and easily consumed, the magazine-like format of incorporating images to complement the textual information, is strongly embraced online. Or, better yet, just put the information into the image in an effectively designed infographic. Portmanteaus are nothing if not efficient, and millennials like their information to be efficient.

Millennials are consuming different material, not only in design, but also in content. In 2013, a new BISAC code under the romantic fiction category was introduced to help clarify the demand for a certain kind of reader and the material being created and consumed. The ‘new adult’ reader is defined by their interest in romantic fiction that is tailored to their demographic: “the characters must be late teens or early 20s, the narration is usually first person, and the sex can be hot—but not so hot that it crosses the line into erotica” (McCartney). Interestingly, Jennifer McCartney notes that the need for this new code arose from the popularity of this specific genre in the self-published e-book market, suggesting that this new audience created and sustained itself long before the publishing world caught on. Were this group not provided the platform of online self-publishing, the ‘new adults’ would have taken a lot longer to emerge as a clearly defined audience, and even longer still to identify and track.

So, what about finding books?


As this very helpful, millennial-friendly infographic shows (Cox 5) nearly a quarter of millennial-aged readers are still finding their reading material through public libraries. This is encouraging, but could easily be increased with some savvy digital sharing. Erin L. Cox attributes the prevalence of recommendations though social media and direct word of mouth channels to millennials inclination to “share their likes and dislikes” (4), especially online. It can be argued that, which was purchased by Amazon in 2013 for the humble price of $150 million, seems to be successfully stepping in to take on that role of opinion-sharing platform for books. Not only does Goodreads link automatically to users’ Facebook pages and connect them directly with their already established network of ‘friends,’ users can now purchase any book through Amazon and other retailers directly through the Goodreads page. Users can also rate, review, or tag books for future reading, unintentionally and unobtrusively giving publishers insight into the reading habits and trends of audiences.

Cox also cites, an online community and imprint dedicated to science-fiction and fantasy, as a “particularly successful” example of an online community because they established themselves without association with a particular publisher., by embracing baseball diamond-building Kevin Costner’s “If you build it, they will come” motto, have garnered themselves 1.5 million readers and 45 thousand followers, simply by creating a place for an existing community to meet and share ideas and information. Cox notes that anyone looking to connect to the millennial reader would be wise to take a page out of’s book, so to speak, and give reader’s what they want, while at the same time learning about their preferences in order to capitalize on them. It creates a symbiotic relationship of shared information between the network and the reader, who then becomes the loyal consumer.

Public libraries have equal opportunity to connect with communities, both online and geographically, and maintain this neutrality and authenticity, but whether they are really working to achieve that is not universally evident. Robert McDonald and Chuck Thomas suggest that libraries are already working to accommodate the needs of the physical community by “remaking their physical space in the likeliness of a typical third space (for example, a coffee shop)” (6). While this may seem important in maintaining public libraries as a foundational component of communities and satisfying those who are already users of the library space, it doesn’t seem to be enough to solidify the essentiality of libraries in the minds of millennials. When asked whether the closure of their local library would have “a major impact on their community,” only half of those ages 16-29 agreed (Zickuhr & Rainie 2). Even more indicative of the perceived obsolescence of libraries to the millennial is the measly 19% who believed that the closure of their local public library would “have a major impact of them and their family” (Zickuhr & Rainie 2). This restructuring of the physical space does little to accommodate the new user or satisfy the need for “virtual information,” (McDonald & Thomas 6) and this space for the online community development is not being explored to its full potential. Ideally, the online and the physical community can coincide and even complement each other, but this can only be achieved if both entities and their impact on each other are understood.

With endless information at the fingertips of millennials (and any generation), what do brick and mortar libraries have to offer the new user anymore? It seems that the concept of the physical library as a source of knowledge still outweighs the seemingly unlimited resource of the internet. Drawing again from the data collected by the Pew Research Centre, “62% of Americans under age 30 agree there is ‘a lot of useful, important information that is not available on the internet,’ compared with 53% of older Americans who believe that” (Zickuhr & Rainie 1). While this does not directly attribute libraries to filling the gaps of knowledge left by the internet, it demonstrates a contradiction in the perceived dependence of millennials on online or digital resources for information.

In reality, millennials aren’t as dependent on, or proficient in, technology as they are given credit for, and this has important implications for designing new technology to appeal to the millennial consumer. According to Jennifer Horwath and Cynthia Williamson, “millennials are not using Web 2.0 tools to a greater extent than people of other age groups.” They note that “while some young people may be adept at using new technologies,” it’s not necessary to completely redesign library services to accommodate the tech-savvy user, even warning that “it is dangerous to assume that all young people are exactly the same or that a cookie cutter approach to library service development is acceptable.” Thus, the potential to neglect the millennial user is not necessarily solved by increasing the intricacy of technology. The struggle to design a one-size-fits-all-demographics system, one that is user-friendly while still being technologically advanced, is the heart of the issue.

Libraries, like all areas of publishing and print media, are finding themselves forced to embrace new technology to stay relevant, both in the academic and pleasure reading sectors. Perhaps even more so than publishers, academic libraries have to stay on top of the current technological trends, and serve as a resource for the technologically dependent population. S. R. Ranganathan, the founder of the five laws of library science, stated that libraries must be defined as “a growing organism.” McDonald and Thomas argue that perhaps libraries have forgotten this statute, and a reevaluation of their “cultural roots” is necessary in the face the changing realm of reading. McDonald and Thomas identify the “key disconnects” between libraries and the online world, noting the absence of “tools to support the creation of new-model digital scholarship and to enable the use of Web services frameworks to support information formatting … and point-of-need Web-based assistance” (5). McDonald and Thomas also point out the discrepancies between desktop-based content and the extensive usage of hand-held digital devices.

Finally, McDonald and Thomas argue that libraries have a very antiquated concept of file-sharing, but some libraries, particularly academic ones, are challenging this critique. For example, California University Press’s newly launched Open Access publishing program Luminos seeks to “exponentially increase the visibility and impact of scholarly work by making it globally accessible and freely available in digital formats.” By publishing monographs openly, Luminos places the importance of accessibility over profitability with regard to the distribution of scholarly works, without sacrificing the quality and reputability of the material. As Molly Soat points out, it’s important for millennials to have the ability to easily share and engage with the material they read. Open Access material allows for the consumption of information that is sourced and reviewed, without limiting its readership and shareability. Perhaps public libraries could work to develop a more user-friendly platform of file-sharing, as McDonald and Thomas suggest, that aligns more with the Open Access mode demonstrated by Luminos. Tracking of content consumption need not be sacrificed, and, barring compatibility issues, content can be ‘borrowed’ online. Of course, public libraries already offer e-book versions of many books, but this generally requires the use of an e-reader device compatible with OverDrive. Since only 22% of those ages 18-24 have e-readers, this service is only usable by less than a quarter of the demographic. However, 99% of the same age group have smartphones and can utilize the OverDrive or similar ePub reader app to access library materials, which many public libraries are now adopting. Whether millennials and new users are aware of these developments, however, seems to be the real underlying disconnect.

Since only 36% of millennials surveyed by the Pew Research Centre claimed to have used a library website at least once in 2013 (up from 28% in 2012), it’s clear that this generation, despite reading more, embracing technology and online communities, and having a positive perception of libraries, is not interesting in bridging the gap between physical and digital (16). While libraries have maintained their physical importance and position as a cornerstone of community, millennials do not seem invested in the virtual community and digital offerings of the public library as a source of information. Despite living in a world laden with various modes of communication, libraries and millennials seem to have gotten their wires crossed. Libraries don’t really understand millennials, and vice versa. Libraries need a re-branding in the eyes of millennials, and millennials need to stop being defined in such negative terms at the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy. They are the new readers, hungry for content, and they just need to be able to find it through the channels of their own creation.



Works Cited


Cox, Erin L. “Designing Books for Tomorrow’s Readers: How Millennials Consume Content.” Publishing Technology PLC., October 2014. Web. 7 December 2015.

Fromm, Jeff and Greg Vodicka. “Do Millennials Read? Yes, But They Read Differently.” Futurecast, May 2010. Web. 7 December 2015.

Horwath, Jennifer and Cynthia Williamson. “The Kids are Alright — Or, Are They?: The Millennial Generation’s Technology Use and Intelligence — an Assessment of the Literature.” Partnership: The Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research 4.2 (2009): n. pag. Web. 7 December 2015.

Luminos. The Regents of the University of California, 2015. Web. 7 December 2015

McCartney, Jennifer. “Millennials: An Emerging Readership.” PWxyz, LCC., 24 July 2015. Web. 7 December 2015.

McDonald, Robert H. and Chuck Thomas. “Disconnects Between Library Culture and Millennial Generation Values.” Educause, 1 January, 2006. Web. 7 December 2015.

Soat, Molly. “What Millennials Read and Why.” Say Media, Inc., 16 October 2014. Web. 7 December 2015.

Zickuhr, Kathryn and Lee Rainie. “Younger Americans’ Reading Habits and Technology Use.” Pew Research Center, 10 September, 2014. Web. 7 December 2015.

2 Responses to Millennials, Libraries, & the Internet: A Long-Term Outlook for the Short-Term Attention Span

  1. oliveira says:

    I liked your essay. As an early millennial myself, I resented the cut off at 30 (we’re now 19-34!), but I enjoyed the inforgraphics. Ha ha. I even shared it with my sister. She’s a millennial training to become a librarian. Crazy, right?

  2. gilliancott says:

    Sarah, let me start by telling you that I really enjoyed your analysis, especially your usage of visually-pleasing graphics throughout. I was certain when I saw the “Millennials are…” Google search, that you had photoshopped it. Nope! Very interesting, indeed.
    I think that you’re right in regards to libraries requiring rebranding. I remember going to the library when I was young and not being able to get access to a book until approximately a year after publication. In the culture that we live in now, where we can gain access to a book in a click, it is hard for libraries to compete. However, access to books within libraries may be much faster now. However, I have not attempted to find out, preferring going to bookstores or clicking “buy now” on Amazon (out of desperation only, I swear) and having access right away to the content I’m seeking.
    With that being said, I began wondering why I hadn’t sought this option out. After all, I have a VPL library card, and I go regularly. However, I’m never seeking new books. And I wonder if that is because millennials wish to acquire things. By that I mean that we are aware of our social presence. We built them on sites such as Facebook or Instagram. And we built them by showing people what we have intellectually or culturally. We showcase books or art prints and we like to tell people about them. We like to make our social selves known. Library books are temporary content. They do little to showcase the permanent social self (in comparison to the temporary one, the one that rides the bus while reading a book for instance). So we have millennials wanting immediate gratification and permanence.
    To continue in the same vein as social selves, I think that many libraries in the minds of consumers (consumers being millennials who desire to consume anything–knowledge or words included), are places with plastic jackets on hardcover books. But you’re right. Libraries are not just books. They are events, and I think few market themselves as such. This is really sad to me, mostly because libraries shouldn’t require marketing. But they do. I recognize my newness to Vancouver, but from my knowledge, there are no lecture series at VPL. If there are free lectures at SFU, why are there none at VPL? And if there are, why do post-secondary students not know about them?
    I think that libraries need to work hand-in-hand with educators, marketers, and culture-makers to maintain relevance. Because they are still relevant: they still receive new books, zines, dvds, blurays, etc. But my question is–what does that look like?

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