A recent report based on several national surveys says that leisure reading is at an all-time low among Americans.

While that may be the national trend, area librarians said the same may not be the case for readers in the RiverTown Multimedia area.

The Washington Post article, by Christopher Ingraham, stated that the number of Americans who read for pleasure on any particular day has decreased 30 percent since 2004.

The average time of leisure reading per day was 23 minutes in 2004 and that dropped to 17 minutes per day in 2017, according to the American Time Use survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The report states that declines were higher among men than women, with the share of men reading on a given day dropping from 25 percent in 2004 to 15 percent in 2017. He noted that reading declined across all age levels with the 35-44 age group showing the largest decline with smaller declines among both younger and older age groups.

“It’s tempting to blame the decline on the recent proliferation of computers, cellphones, video games, and the like,” wrote Ingraham, but he noted that another cause, television, is more likely a factor.

“In 2017, the average American spent more than 2 hours 45 minutes per day watching TV, every day of the year, or nearly 10 times the amount of time they devoted to reading for pleasure,” Ingraham stated.

Reading on devices

Tanya Misselt, director of the River Falls Public Library, disagrees with Ingraham’s assessment. “I do think that we have a lot more distractions in our culture with the onset of the technology revolution,” she said. “At first, it seemed that the family television was a distraction from reading books. Now, we see some evidence that a younger generation is using smartphones more than television.”

She added that measuring amounts of leisure reading and distractions from that reading is complicated by the fact that many people are now using electronic devices for the leisure reading.

A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 38 percent of readers read only print, 6 percent read only digital, 28 percent read both, and 26 percent read no books at all, with the latter statistic having tripled from 1978 to 2014.

“I am happy to report that we are not seeing the same downward trend for our local community,” said Jessica McGee, director of the Red Wing Public Library. “We are a community of avid readers. We consistently see a high amount of circulation.”

Reporting a similar pattern in Lake City, library director Patti Bross said circulation is increasing. She noted that the library is seeing a “decrease in people coming in looking for nonfiction, because you can just get on your computer or your iPad and look for your information,” she said. “We are seeing more fiction going out than nonfiction.”

Bross said one factor in the level of circulation is the state of the economy. “Typically, if the economy is good, your circulation is down, and if the economy is bad, your circulation is up,” she said, “but we have been going up the past few years.”

A ‘free’ service

She said that circulation numbers were very high in 2008 and 2009 when the economy was bad. She credits that to people being more careful with their disposable income and choosing to check out books rather than buy them. She said it also may be that during those times, people choose not to go to concerts or on vacation to save money and then have more time left for checking out books from the library and reading.

Total circulation at the Lake City Library in 2018 was 64,968 items, with about 5,000 of those being ebooks. With budget dollars tight, the library hasn’t “purchased ebooks as fast as ebook interest has gone up,” Bross said.

One solution to this happened when the Hennepin County Library agreed to let patrons outside Hennepin County apply for a library card and check out ebooks. Bross said this helped because “our voracious ebook readers can get a Hennepin County card and their collection of ebooks is much larger.”

Patrons going to the Hennepin County Library for some of their materials reduces the circulation statistics for the Lake City Library, but Bross said, “We are just happy that they are reading.”

Libraries are complex

As this shows, statistics for libraries aren’t as simple as they once were. Margaret Stone, director of the Dakota County Library in Hastings, said defining what leisure reading is can be a challenge.

“I would argue that any reading for enjoyment is leisure reading and that would include newspapers and magazines, comic books, and audio books,” Stone said. “Dakota County Library offers many different materials so people can find what works for them.”

Stone said the use of ebooks “continues to grow in double-digit percentages, but some people prefer paper. We are trying to meet the demand for both.”

She said digital borrowing was especially high in January. “Maybe people didn’t want to go outside in the cold,” she said.

Growing circulation

At the Red Wing Public Library, McGee has seen a steady increase in total circulation over the past five years, from 202,507 in 2013 to 218,937 in 2018. In that same time, e-items increased from 9,119 to 17,508.

Much like in Lake City, circulation of e-materials is “restricted by the size of our collection,” McGee said. “Our physical collection is much larger than our online collection.”

Misselt said that in 2018, the River Falls Public Library total circulation was 284,918 items. Of those, 19,839 were ebooks and 15,874 were audio books. River Falls also has electronic collections, and patrons “downloaded library information from those collections more than 34,000 times,” Misselt said. “People are clearly reading, but the range of reading formats is broader than ever.”

McGee is proud of library use in Red Wing. “We work very hard to make the library a destination for our patrons, not just a stop,” McGee said. “We have worked on our collection development to further complement our growing community, and we plan to continue to have a collection that represents all members of our community.”

She added, “We just completed a survey and developed a long-range plan for the next 10 years.”

The national trend may be toward less leisure reading, but statistics show that area readers are keeping the librarians busy.

Boost your book minutes

On its website, Brilliant Books makes these recommendations if you want to increase your leisure reading time.

  1. Carry a book with you. Whether you're stuck in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles or waiting in a doctor's office, sneak in that pleasure reading where you can.
  2. Get a recommendation. Are you stuck in a reading rut? Get a recommendation from a friend, a librarian, or a bookseller.
  3. Set a schedule. Forming a new habit is tough, even if it's for something you enjoy. Set an alarm to remind yourself to step away from the work of the day and take time to enjoy a book.