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Austin’s new Central Library opens Saturday. Will people use it?

Friday, October 27, 2017 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Taylor Barnett, 24, hasn’t had a public library card since the 1990s, when she was a kid growing up in Victoria, Texas. She would frequent the local library with her grandparents, especially after they bought a computer with little idea of how to use it.

“The library had computer classes,” said Barnett. “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 city’s grand opening of its new Central Library. The 198,000-square-foot building in downtown Austin 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 a new central public library. City Council members ended up approving an additional $35 million to complete construction. The opening of the library has been delayed several times. But it will finally open its doors this Saturday, Oct. 28.

And 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 new public library card.

“I could probably save a lot of money,” said Barnett. “I think the closeness of the library” – Barnett lives downtown – “also has encouraged me. And of course the nice, new shininess of it.”

As a millennial interested in her nearby public library, Barnett is not alone. According to research by the Pew Research Center, people between the ages of 18 and 35 frequent public libraries more than any other age group. 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 Research Center, said that during the six years he studied the topic, he found the U.S. has had a healthy culture of public library usage.

“We find that about 80 percent of Americans have at some point used a public library,” said Horrigan. “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 (provided) in the library.”

In addition to stacks upon stacks of books, Austin’s new Central Library offers a performance space, cafe and 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.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Gabriel Cristóver Pérez/KUT News.

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