Column Editor: Steve Rosato (Director and Business Development Executive, OverDrive Professional, Cleveland, OH 44125)
Against the Grain v34#5
With our 24-hour news cycle feeding us a continuous diet of doom and gloom, it’s with great pleasure that I share with you today a positive development in our world: Leisure reading among college students is up!
Circulation of OverDrive Academic eBook and audiobook collections jumped by 9 percent in 2021, followed by another 17-percent increase year-to-date in 2022. OverDrive Academic, which partners with hundreds of colleges and universities of all shapes and sizes across the globe, connects students, faculty and staff with the digital books they need — for both leisure reading and curriculum support .
So, what does this mean for publishers? We spoke to Penguin Random House about Gen Z and millennial reading habits, and how this impacts their leisure reading. Skip Dye, Penguin Random House SVP Library Sales and Digital Strategy, had this to say:
“Reading remains one of the biggest hobbies amongst members of the Gen Z and millennial generations. In a 2022 Hobbies & Passions Behavioral survey conducted by YPulse, both Gen Z and Millennials identified reading as one of their top five hobbies. Leisure reading is an important component of this. Forty-four percent of 18-24-year-old book buyers and readers reported reading more for leisure in 2021 than previous years (Penguin Random House Consumer Insights, 2021 US Book Buyer Segmentation).
“According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans spent more time reading for leisure in 2020 than the previous year. Key groups that reporting reading more include adult Gen Zers age 20-24 and younger millennials age 25-34. This trend is driving an increase in binge reading, which is up 7 percent 2017-2021 (Penguin Random House Consumer Insights, 2021 US Book Buyer Segmentation).
“In addition to leisure reading, we know from consumer research that younger generations are continuing to turn to books as a key resource to learn a new skill or better prepare for their prospective futures (Stylus, 2022). Skill building is a key area of interest for Gen Zers, with almost three-quarters (72 percent) of Gen Zers identifying having taken a course outside of their schooling to learn a new skill (YPulse, 2022).”
The Penguin Random House Library Marketing team identified titles that are igniting a curiosity and passion for learning, such as The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee and The Body Is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor. Whether sharing new fiction or revisiting classics, social media influencer recommendations are a big part of Gen Z and millennial leisure reading as well, including: Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler, Beach Read by Emily Henry and I’m So (Not) Over You by Kosoko Jackson. Gaming and fandom are also impactful in leisure reading, as demonstrated in the series-based readership of Critical Role’s Vox Machina Dungeons & Dragons tie-in series, the graphic novel series Lore Olympus by Rachel Smythe and the massively popular manga series The Seven Deadly Sins by Nakaba Suzuki.
We also asked three academic librarians from three different institutions about why leisure reading is so important in supporting the whole student — including academic success — and how they’ve shifted to digital books as part of the solution in driving these outcomes.
Georgia Southern University: “Everyone Needs a Break”
Georgia Southern University (GSU) Acquisitions Librarian Jessica Minihan Rigg believes connecting students with leisure reading during the COVID-19 pandemic was crucial.
“For us, it was important that we provided some sort of escape,” she said. “Everyone needs a break, everyone needs to relax, and leisure reading is a great way to do that.”
Rigg noted that a critical component of the library supporting the whole student is recognizing and acknowledging they have lives outside of the classroom. This means addressing their actual interests and needs, which is why GSU leisure reading collection development is based on requests.
“They’re Georgia Southern students, but they’re also people and mothers and soldiers,” Rigg said. “Ultimately, I think our job is to help nurture their curiosity, and in a lot of ways, their empathy, too.”
A major component of GSU’s leisure reading strategy has been a shift to focus on eBooks and audiobooks. And this isn’t limited to just leisure reading. The library has also expanded its digital resources to serve growing areas of study.
“More and more of our content is moving online because we want to meet people where they are. And where they are is usually on their laptop or phone,” Rigg said.
Northeast Mississippi Community College: “Support Students to be Successful in all Areas”
Northeast Mississippi Community College Librarian Ellice Yager also points to lockdowns at the onset of the pandemic as a catalyst for growing the library’s digital collection, particularly leisure reading titles.
“We realized our digital collection just wasn’t where it needed to be to support our students,” she said. “With the library closed, they had no way to access leisure reading materials.”
Yager sees supporting student mental health by, in part, providing a safe, inclusive space as a vital role of the library. Providing leisure reading resources that students can relate to and feel seen in is a key component of this.
“To us, I would say supporting the whole student is not just supporting them academically but supporting them to be successful in other areas of their lives,” she said.
That’s not to say leisure reading doesn’t contribute to academic success. Yager recalls a student who wanted to pursue nursing but struggled with low standardized test scores in reading. So, she and another librarian recommended books to help the student start reading for leisure. The plan worked, with the student improving her reading speed and vocabulary — and test scores — with the more she read.
“We were proud of her,” Yager said.
Boise State University: “Fiction Opens Your World and Helps You Develop Empathy”
Mary Aagard is the head of acquisitions and collections and an associate professor at the Albertsons Library at Boise State University, Idaho’s largest public university.
“I feel like there’s lots of opportunity for academic libraries to be a part of that student wellness and whole student conversation,” she said.
Aagard believes leisure reading plays a role in this, alongside content in areas like self-help, personal development and DEI. Collectively, these types of content — which Boise State is increasingly offering in only digital formats — offer students opportunities for relaxation, contemplation, reflection and independent learning.
“Students need a chance to open their brains to a lot of different things, and having a collection that isn’t just tied to the curriculum helps them explore,” she said.
And with complex issues seemingly emerging every day from every corner of the globe, it can be difficult at times to make sense of it all — especially for college students who are also trying to navigate their own changing lives. Aagard sees reading both popular fiction and titles about current events for leisure as a powerful way to gain a broader perspective on what’s happening in our world.
“I’m a big proponent for how fiction opens your world and helps you develop empathy and understanding of other cultures,” she said.
A Cause for Celebration
Whether it’s just to take a break, explore a new curiosity or discover a different point of view, it’s great news that college students are reading more for leisure. And it’s no surprise that academic librarians are diligently working to support this encouraging trend by connecting students with the content and formats they want and need. This all truly is a cause for celebration.