Gen Z is rediscovering the public library, with a focus on both books and appearances.
Henry Earls gets dressed up to visit the library. He chooses his outfits by searching “dark academic” on Pinterest, drawing inspiration from the online subculture that is infatuated with academia and literature. He opts for comfortable knitted sweaters and adds in vintage copies of renowned books as accessories. With his attire, Earls resembles a part-time English professor or a background character in Saltburn.
“I strive to create an aesthetic when I visit the library,” stated the 20-year-old art student from Cooper Union. “To be honest, I dress up in hopes that someone will approach me and strike up a conversation.”
Earls spends his time at the New York Public Library studying, but also uses the opportunity to socialize and potentially make romantic connections. Recently, he politely gave his contact information to a nearby woman which initiated a flirtatious text conversation. He also struck up a friendship with a law student who was studying for an exam on the library steps a few days ago.
Earls stated that they connected in a productive and nurturing setting, leading to a strong connection between them. They also mentioned the possibility of their acquaintance joining in social gatherings with Earls and their friends.
The younger generation, known as Gen Z, has shown a strong affinity for public libraries. According to a recent report released by the American Library Association (ALA), which gathered data from ethnographic studies and a 2022 survey, both Gen Z and millennials are utilizing public libraries, both in physical locations and online, at a higher frequency compared to older age groups.
Out of the 2,075 participants in the survey, over half had gone to a physical library in the last year. Not all of them were avid readers, as the report reveals that 43% of gen Z and millennials do not consider themselves readers. However, approximately half of these non-readers still made a trip to their nearby library within the past 12 months. Black gen Zers and millennials showed a particularly high rate of library visits.
Libraries serve a greater purpose than just housing books. They are centers for communities to come together and explore. In today’s highly digital world, where the “loneliness epidemic” is prevalent, libraries have become more social environments.
According to Rachel Noorda, co-author of the ALA report, libraries are often associated with quietness, but there are now designated spaces for teens to engage in activities such as gaming and music-making. These spaces provide opportunities for both solitude and building a sense of community.
Earls uses TikTok as a platform to showcase his authentic self. His videos, which feature him studying, journaling, or reading in front of the stunning beaux-arts background of Bryant Park library, have gained millions of views. According to Earls, people his age are searching for genuine content, making books and physical materials the perfect choice for authenticity.
Content related to libraries is popular on #booktok, a platform where young influencers in the literary community, many of whom are still in high school, boost sales by sharing recommendations and reviews of stories. Author Colleen Hoover, who is a favorite on #booktok, skyrocketed to the top of bestseller lists thanks to viral endorsements. Other books that are often recommended on the platform fall into the genre of young adult “romantasy.”
Marwa Medjahed, an 18-year-old TikToker with 115,000 followers, stated that many of her followers appreciate the aesthetic appeal of libraries. She shares content about her experience as a freshman at George Washington University and believes that her followers perceive her enjoyment of studying instead of being in a dull dorm room with harsh lighting.
Even though a lot of young individuals prefer reading digitally and illegally downloading books, physical copies of books are highly valued on social media platforms. According to Kathi Inman Berens, one of the authors of the ALA report, ebooks don’t make for good visual props on TikTok. She believes that the materiality and physical presence of a printed book is necessary for a visually appealing display. This raises the question – why purchase a book when you can simply borrow it from the library?
Tom Worcester, aged 28, is a co-founder of Reading Rhythms, a unique event in New York where people can enjoy reading and socializing at bars. For a fee of $20, attendees can relax with their books while DJs provide soothing music in the background. In addition to the twice weekly events, Worcester still makes time to visit traditional libraries with friends. He sees it as a social activity, saying, “If I have a good chunk of time to myself, I’ll invite some friends and we’ll go to the library together.”
Last year, Worcester and a companion went on a journey to Amsterdam and explored the Openbare Bibliotheek. In the second biggest library in Europe, they carried out their own “annual reviews”, dedicating hours to pondering the successes and challenges of their year. According to Worcester, being in the library instills a silent understanding that one must concentrate on their tasks at hand.
When discussing libraries with a young person who spends a lot of time online, they will likely mention the concept of the “third place”. This term was first used by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg in 1989. Similar to attachment styles or imposter syndrome, the third place has become a topic of discussion on social media despite originally being an academic term. It refers to a space for socializing and gathering that is distinct from one’s home and workplace. Common examples include bars, coffee shops, churches, and libraries.
The younger generation, also known as Gen Z, is aware that they do not have as many communal spaces as their parents did. This is especially evident as the boundaries between work and home became blurred during the Covid pandemic. Libraries are one of the few remaining places where they can go without any expectations or demands. They can truly be themselves.
Anika Neumeyer, a 19-year-old English student who volunteers at the Seattle Public Library, stated that coffee shops tend to get very busy and require spending money, while libraries are accessible to all. She also pointed out that there is less pressure to be productive at the library and no fear of being judged by others.
In 2018, Fobazi Ettarh, a librarian and academic, introduced the phrase “vocational awe”. This concept refers to the belief that libraries are inherently positive and immune to criticism, which can result in the exploitation of library workers. Abby Hargreaves, a librarian in the Washington DC region who shares her job experiences with 48,000 TikTok followers, believes that many members of Generation Z have a tendency to idealize the profession.
Hargreaves stated that there is a common notion of going to the library and experiencing exciting adventures. However, there are also individuals who aim to dismantle libraries, either through financial reductions or laws prohibiting certain books.
If the generation known as gen Z plans to rescue libraries, now is the perfect opportunity for them to speak up. Throughout the nation, these establishments and their staff are facing opposition. In the previous year, Mayor Eric Adams of New York City reduced funding for public libraries, resulting in the discontinuation of Sunday service in all five boroughs. This decision sparked outrage from Cardi B, who expressed her frustration on Instagram Live.
Several bills related to libraries are moving through the legislative process in Idaho. These bills aim to limit access to materials deemed inappropriate for minors and give family members the ability to file lawsuits worth $2,500 against libraries that violate the law. In the past, Missouri Republicans have tried to remove all state funding from public libraries. Recently, Chaya Raichik, a right-wing influencer known for Libs of Tiktok, was appointed to a library advisory position for Oklahoma schools. This appointment could potentially give her the power to decide which books are considered suitable for students.
In various states, school librarians have reported being subjected to harassment, and in some cases, receiving death threats from right-wing trolls simply for carrying out their duties.
“It’s quite odd to hear people say that generation Z has a strong love for libraries, or to constantly see videos of stunning libraries on your feed, but then have to deal with limited library services and long waits for books,” explained Anna Murphy, a librarian at the Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn. “The conflicting views of adoration and frustration towards libraries seem to coexist in separate worlds.”
According to Emily Drabinski, the head of the ALA, it is important to remember that the majority of American voters are against censoring books and have a high opinion of librarians. She also stated that, due to many years of neglecting public institutions, the library is often the only one that remains standing and is beloved by many.
Arlo Platt Zolov, a 15-year-old resident of Brooklyn, has a fantastic after-school job at the main branch of the public library near Prospect Park. In a world full of technology and constant change, Arlo believes that libraries are being rediscovered as a familiar and welcoming shared space, rather than something new.