Conversations With a Librarian: How We’ve Been Reading

Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, more and more people have turned to reading for fun. What might have started out as just a way to pass time, given the excess downtime we have all had, became a cherished diversion. From new readers looking for a new hobby to add to their list to seasoned readers rediscovering their beloved pastime, readership has truly soared across the country. 

Libraries have certainly taken note. As one of the most popular places to acquire books, they have seen firsthand the increased readership. They have seen the reading patterns of the local people, from popular genres to the split between new readers to longtime readers. With all this knowledge at their fingertips, they can really gauge how people have been perusing books.

I spoke with Tiffany Harkleroad—a children’s librarian in Butler, Pennsylvania—to see what trends she has been noticing in her corner of the world. The answers she gave me were not what I expected.

For the first eight to ten weeks that the country had been in lockdown, the library didn’t receive a lot of customers. Not only were people not allowed physically in the library, but older people found it difficult adjusting to downloading books from the library via apps such as Libby and Hoopla. In May, though, the library opened its doors for the first time since it shut them, and in June, it introduced curbside pickup as a way to get books without getting out of your car. 

Since then, circulation has soared.

For roughly four months, people were free to browse the shelves in person, and it was back to the old days…except with masks, six-feet-apart stickers, and plexiglass shields for the circulation desk. Abiding by CDC guidelines proved to be rather costly, but fortunately the state reimbursed the library through grants. 

Most patrons were quick to conform to said guidelines, but they lamented the loss of community and the inability to congregate and chat after getting their books. “The library had become a big part of their lives,” Ms. Harkleroad said. Due to the coronavirus, they now had to essentially check out and get out.

I knew what she was talking about with regard to the community fostered by the town library. At our own New Castle library, pre-coronavirus, the activities were across the board, and while some were available every week on a certain day of the week, others were more unique to that day and date. One week, you might discuss Sherlock with fellow fans on Monday, attend a movie on Wednesday, and (for a younger crowd) play Pokemon on Thursday. Unfortunately, these have all been put on hold due to COVID-19.

In mid-November, the Butler library had to switch to curbside pickup exclusively. This switch saw a huge increase in virtual orders, but readers did take to the curbside option as well, especially the older ones, because it did not require navigating through oftentimes confusing apps.

Generally, fiction has proven to be more popular than nonfiction, and it isn’t hard to see why. People wanted an escape from the trying times. They wanted a lighthearted story to get their minds off of all the crazy in the world. Yes, you do hear stories of people learning the art of knitting sweaters and making bread with the help of a work of nonfiction, but in the Butler area, people weren’t having similar successes.

I asked Ms. Harkleroad about the difference between new readers and more seasoned readers in terms of their reading patterns, and her response threw me for the proverbial loop. Longtime bookworms have had a hard time carrying on their beloved hobby. They felt overwhelmed by the amount of time on their hands with which to read. Moreover, they got easily distracted whenever they tried to sit down with a book.

What do I read? How much time do I set aside per day to read? Can answering that text wait? These questions were hard for them to answer, which in turn was hard for me to comprehend, because I thought they would have had no trouble filling up a good chunk of their day reading.

Surprisingly, this has been the case for newer readers. They have had the time to relax with a book in hand. Maybe the fact that they are new to the pastime has something to do with it. Maybe they are so excited to have discovered this pastime that they are more willing to while away the hours engaging in it—they want to dive fully in rather than test the waters. 

As for Ms. Harkleroad, she really takes her job seriously. To know what books to recommend to her younger patrons, she reads a lot of middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her favorites for more personal perusing include nonfiction, true crime, memoirs, and graphic novels. She absolutely adores graphic novels.

I had been begun reading a little over Christmas break after an embarrassingly long hiatus of not picking up a book, but talking with her and learning about her observations, as well as her habits, made me all the more eager to continue reading a set number of pages a day so I didn’t lose the habit all over again.

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