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Colorado millennials booking it to their public libraries

November 10, 2018

DENVER (AP) — When 23-year-old Curt Baker had two buddies visiting from Arkansas over to his new Denver digs last week, he knew there was one spot everyone had to check out: the Denver Central Library.

“I’ve only lived here about a month, but I love the connections and public resources available here at the library,” Baker said Friday afternoon at the public library’s downtown location. “We all really like libraries, so I thought I’d show my friends while we explore the city.”

Baker has joined social events at the Denver Central Library that encourage conversations over coffee and donuts, and is using the downtown location’s printers and free Wi-Fi as he applies for jobs.

Research confirms Baker and his twentysomething pals aren’t outliers in their reverence for public libraries. A message popularized by every ’90s kid’s favorite cartoon aardvark has seeped into the collective millennial brain, according to a Pew Research study: “Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card.”

Nationally, millennials are the generation most likely to use public libraries, the Pew study found. The 2016 data show 53 percent of those aged 18 to 35 said they had used a public library or bookmobile in the previous 12 months, compared to 45 percent of Gen Xers, 43 percent of baby boomers and 36 percent of those in the Silent Generation. The survey question was worded to focus on public libraries, not libraries on college campuses.

Colorado is stocked with slightly more than 100 library districts that reported to the Library Research Service’s annual survey. Those Colorado libraries saw more than 31 million visits in 2017, offering more than 10,700 programs for young adults and nearly 70,000 for adults.

Jon Walker, executive director of the Pueblo City-County Library District, has seen the millennial trend for himself.

While his libraries don’t break out numbers to specifically track attendance by age, Walker said the Pueblo library district saw an 86-percent attendance increase in adult programming from 2017 to 2018, meaning people were scrambling to make it to sewing circles, coding classes and tie-dying events. The program attendance from January through September 2018 was 357,681, while the same time period in 2017 saw 191,822 participants.

“A lot of this interest is in our young adult population,” Walker said. “That age group is definitely in our wheelhouse.”

Walker thinks young adults’ library love affair stems from two places. First, he’s noticed fledgling parents finding solace behind library walls as they search for somewhere safe, affordable and educational to turn their kids loose.

Kiran Nole, 21, was hanging out with the almost 4-year-old twin boys she nannies in the Denver Central Library’s children’s section on Friday.

“They love coming here and interacting with other kids and reading books with me,” Nole said. “And it’s nice for me to come and talk to other nannies and parents. Also, I just found out I could check out movies here and that some of them are even new, so that’s really cool, too.”

Secondly, Walker has seen massive growth in the Pueblo library’s program attendance for hands-on classes and events.

“This month alone, we’ve got dance programs, music programs and we had a film festival where people made their own films and then we showed them,” Walker said. “We aren’t abandoning investing in the book, but we are seeing some shift away from the traditional resources to these other kinds of activities just based on utilization.”

A Boulder Public Library program named “adultology” is shamelessly catering to folks wanting to feel more grown-up in the kitchen. Aspen Walker, community engagement and enrichment manager at the Boulder library, said the class teaches farm-to-table cooking and culinary experiences like learning how to brew kombucha.

Walker also pointed to the Boulder library’s “makerspace” — which features a full service woodshop and crafting supplies for sewing, mending, weaving and more — as being popular with young adults. A workshop coming up particularly excited Walker: library patrons can learn how to sew pockets on their clothes.

Chris Henning, spokesman for Denver Public Library, also has seen young adults gravitating toward some of the library’s less traditional offerings. “We’re seeing a larger number of millennials than we’ve had in a long time,” Henning said.

At the Denver Public Library, patrons can check out experiences: passes to Colorado state parks complete with a family activity backpack, admission to nearby museums and a lottery for tickets to plays and concerts with the Colorado Symphony and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, GoPro cameras, indoor air quality monitors and more.

In August, the Denver library’s Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales Branch offered literary-themed tattoos, moving the needle toward a youthful, trendy service to remind everyone of the magic of ink on paper and skin. A free Netflix-esque streaming service called Kanopy is also leaving its Denver Public Library mark, offering thousands of videos in its digital catalog.

“Based on that sharing economy idea where they’re trying to save money and be resourceful, that’s where we’ve seen a lot of growth because of millennials,” Henning said.

Hana Zittel is an adult services librarian at the Denver Central Library branch, where she manages book checkout and designs programming for adults and young adults.

Zittel isn’t convinced that young folks are pumped on the library just for the museum passes and movies — she watches millennials’ love of the written word unfold around her every day.

“From what I see, millennials are big readers and see the merit of the library being free and open to everyone and a place where all ideas are welcome,” Zittel said. “One of the most valuable things the library still represents is nurturing that love of learning and reading.”

Zittel and her coworkers also help coordinate programs like the Winter of Reading, inspired from the classic summer reading programs normally aimed at children with a seasonal and generational twist.

“This may not be the same library you remember when you were a kid,” Zittel said. “I was just sharing with a group of friends that they can get free tickets to museums through the library, and they were yelling at me to write the website link down for them. The connection over art and music and reading is something that really resonates with that age group, and the library has kind of become an epicenter for those interactions.”

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