How Do You Get People to Use the Library?

Here’s a familiar one.

A newspaper (in this case, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune) interviews a handful of undergrads (in this case, at the University of Minnesota) about their research practices. One student says that she goes to the library and uses it as a kind of away-from-home study hall, but uses it for nothing else. She complains that the library website is hard to navigate and that the library charges fines if a book is a day late.

Other common undergrad library use perceptions: The library system is too big and too daunting. Students want one answer and they want it now (“gimme gimme gimme”). Students like studying at Borders or Barnes and Noble; they can browse, find items quickly without having to memorize LC or Dewey Decimal numbers, take books off shelves and put them back when they’re done, don’t have to check anything out, and all of the books have new covers and attractive dust jackets. (All of the books in the library have had their jackets removed and are therefore “old” to the students.) They can bring food and beverages into the chain bookstore and not get yelled at or told to leave.

And of course, the big one: Everything you want to find out, you can find out on the Internet.

The one librarian interviewed for this article had exactly the right approach: “The question we are asking is what kind of library does the millennial generation need, not what do we want to give them.” She adds: “Faculty members are so annoyed by the low-quality research students do. I don’t want to let that happen. So what do we do to entice them here and make it welcoming and easy to use the library?”

But who knows how many libraries actually have the resources and the determination to put that mode of thinking into hard practice? Almost any of the remarks undergrads make in this article could be made about the University of Michigan’s library system (or, I imagine, most university library systems). The UM library system intimidated me when I first started using it, and I love libraries and everything about libraries, including the rows upon rows of LC-numbered books without dust jackets. It must have taken me at least a month or two of regular use before I shook the feeling that I wasn’t really supposed to know how to negotiate the library. And I forced myself to use the library for some reason almost every day. How, I wonder, would a freshman on a tight class deadline who’s not used the library extensively before feel upon encountering the vast UM morass?

It’s a tough question, and there are no easy answers, but the implications of finding a set of implementable answers are crucial to the survival of the library as we know it.

[Link courtesy LISNews.]