Austin's New Central Public Library Opens Saturday. Will People Use It?
Taylor Barnett, 24, hasn’t had a public library card since the 1990s, when she was growing up in Victoria, Texas. She would go frequently to the library with her grandparents, especially after they bought a computer with little idea of how to use it.
“The library had computer classes,” she said. “My grandmother really taught [herself] through those classes, and I would go with her to the classes and go home and be her tutor, in a way.”
Barnett recently decided to rejoin the ranks of public library cardholders in anticipation of the grand opening of Austin's new central public library. The 198,000-square-foot building downtown has been more than a decade in the making and will replace the 1970s-era John Henry Faulk Library on Guadalupe Street.
In 2006, voters approved $90 million in bonds to construct the library. City Council members ended up approving an additional $35 million to complete construction. The library's opening has been delayed several times. But it will finally open its doors Saturday.
While public libraries may seem a thing of the past, Americans are pretty reliable users of them.
Barnett, who said she buys books online, ticked off multiple reasons for getting a library card.
“I could probably save a lot of money. I think the closeness of the library also encouraged me,” said Barnett, who lives downtown. "And, of course, the nice, new shininess of it.”
As a millennial interested in her nearby library, she is likely not alone. According to research by the Pew Research Center, people between the ages of 18 and 35 frequent public libraries more than other age groups. Forty-one percent of millennials used a library website in the past year, compared to 25 percent of baby boomers.
Regardless of age, John Horrigan, a former researcher with the Pew, said the U.S. has had a healthy culture of public library usage during the six years he studied the topic.
“We find that about 80 percent of Americans have at some point used a public library,” he said. “In any given year, about half of all Americans have used a public library.”
Horrigan said Americans’ expectations of what they’ll find at their local public library have changed.
“They still want to have books and – to a certain extent – they still want to have stacks of books available for them to peruse,” he said. “But they also want spaces for meetings. They want places where they can use computers they may bring into the library or use computers in the library.”
In addition to stacks upon stacks of books, Austin’s new central library offers a performance space, café and a rooftop garden.
Barnett said she still has to pick up her physical library card, but she’ll wait until the crowds disperse to do so.
“[I’ll go] after the peak of people going there and wanting to check it out passes,” she said.