E-readers, millennials haven’t spelled doom for libraries, new Fort Worth director says

Good news, bookworms. Despite a decade of grim predictions and doomsday headlines, Fort Worth Library director Manya Shorr says the demand for print books is still alive and well in Cowtown.

Shorr, who came to Fort Worth from the Washington, D.C., Public Library in September and has more than 20 years of experience in public libraries, is an avid e-reader. But she’s quick to point out that recent data shows she’s part of a small minority.

“When everyone was predicting the death of print, I think they were forgetting this emotional connection that people have to print,” Shorr said. “What you hear from a lot of people is they love how it feels in their hand. They love how it smells,” Shorr said.

The circulation numbers in Fort Worth mirror the findings nationally.

The Pew Research Center found in 2016 that 65 percent of Americans have read a print book in the past year, more than double the number that have read an e-book (28 percent). At the Fort Worth Library, print books account for the majority of the library’s checkouts, at 42 percent. Only 5 percent of checkouts are e-books.

Even more encouraging for print fans? The Pew study also reported that nearly 4-in-10 Americans read print exclusively, compared with the just 6 percent that are digital-only book readers.

The arrival of the e-reader

When the Kindle first launched on Nov. 19, 2007, it wasn’t the first of its kind to hit the retail market. Other companies like Microsoft and Sony had already released their own e-readers. However, the Kindle was by far the first commercially successful e-reader, selling 240,000 units in its first eight months.

Despite initial predictions that the popularity of e-readers would drive people away from libraries, it did the exact opposite. After the release of the Kindle, Shorr says libraries saw an influx of visitors asking for help downloading e-books to their e-readers. As a result, many libraries began offering free e-reader classes.

For their part, Shorr says public libraries have always embraced e-readers, even when those who were making the e-readers and e-books didn’t embrace them right back.

“Our biggest issue was with publishers, because publishers who had been selling to us for 150 years all of a sudden did not want to sell us e-books or didn’t have the mechanism to do it,” she says.

Despite launching the Kindle four years earlier, Amazon didn’t start offering library checkouts until 2011. Before then, Shorr says, library patrons could only check out an e-book if they had a Sony e-reader or a Nook, the brand of e-readers developed by Barnes & Noble.

These days, visitors to the Fort Worth Library aren’t limited to just checking out print editions and e-books. They also can choose from books on CD and downloadable audiobooks. While some of these options might seem a little archaic, Shorr says, the library is committed to meeting the needs of all its patrons.

The pro-print movement

There is one group in particular that skews away from e-readers, and it might surprise you: millennials.

Although they have earned the moniker of most tech-savvy generation, individuals ages 18-35 are leading the pro-print movement, recent studies show. Per a 2015 survey by Publishing Perspectives, 79 percent of 1,000 millennials surveyed have read at least one print book in the past year (almost twice the number that had read an e-book).

“Everyone thought as we all get more technologically savvy, we’re all going to abandon the book,” Shorr says. “It’s just not true. It has not been the case.”

According to the Pew Research Center, millennials are also more likely to have visited a public library in the past year than any other adult generation.

Case in point: Sylvia Holland of Fort Worth. The 27-year-old mother of two says she visits the library three or four times a week with her family to check out books and movies. Both her daughters have their own library cards, including 26-day-old Dahlia.

“It’s a quiet, warm environment,” Holland says. “You can actually get out. You can see other people. You can interact with other people and its quiet. And it’s, like, family-oriented.”

When asked if she prefers e-books over print editions, Holland admits she tends to eschew modern technology for a more old-school reading experience (a sentiment she hopes to pass on to her children, she says). Recently, she checked out print books on learning to speak Spanish and on backyard gardening.

While millennials are often labeled as being tech-obsessed, Shorr says she believes young people these days are craving community spaces where they can connect with other individuals on a personal level and have authentic interactions. No FaceTime. No Snapchat filters. No scrutiny from the web.

“[Libraries] are resources for information, but also touchstones in every community,” Shorr says. “Where else can you go that is free, nonjudgmental and you can spend all day?”

The future

While print editions remain the preferred method of reading for most Americans, it’s hard to predict if that trend will hold as technology continues to advance. New virtual-reality apps like Chimera Reader are now giving readers the opportunity to enjoy their favorite books in virtual settings, like a beautiful 19th-century study or a cozy college library.

With VR on the rise, does that leave open the possibility that one day our public libraries could be replaced with virtual ones? Shorr doesn’t think so.

“People have been predicting our demise for 200 years. Every time there is a new technology, somebody says that is going to be the death of the public library,” Shorr said.

“That was the prediction when we started getting internet computers. That was the prediction when we started getting audiobooks and DVDs: No one is going to need the library anymore. We have the staying power.”

Shorr says her main focus is on how she can better serve Fort Worth’s rapidly growing community.

In far north Fort Worth, a new library branch is being built that features modern amenities such as a makerspace with 3-D printers, a laser cutter and a dedicated children’s area. The $9.1 million facility, which will be known as the Golden Triangle Branch Library, is set to open in 2018.

While Shorr is excited for the addition of the new branch, she acknowledges that there are other areas in Fort Worth that could benefit from additional branches. In the meantime, she says she’d like to make the Fort Worth Library and its services more accessible online for patrons who don’t live close to a branch or who are homebound.

“We’re one of the few things . . . that is left in any community that is really just open to everyone. That’s really important to me,” Shorr says. “I’m excited by the growth of Fort Worth and the possibilities for the public library. And how we can continue to expand and offer opportunities.”