How Are Readers Consuming E-Books?

By Amy Wickner — October 15, 2012 3 min read
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I tuned in to the Library 2.012 Virtual Conference, an all-online event exploring serendipity and discovery in libraries that ran from Oct. 3-5. A joint session hosted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and the American Library Association looked at what e-reading habits tell us about the future of public libraries as places of discovery.

The session, titled “What Can Libraries Learn from New User (and Non-User!) E-Reading Data from the Pew Internet Project?,” parsed results from The Rise of E-reading and Libraries, Patrons, and E-books—two of the Pew Internet Project’s recent publications on the e-reading and e-book borrowing habits of teenagers (16+) and adults and their use of public libraries.

Strikingly, Pew researchers found a gap in public awareness of e-book availability and services: Sixty-two percent of all respondents and 55 percent of library cardholders surveyed couldn’t say for sure whether their local libraries had e-books in circulation. Even e-reading device owners—a group with strong representation among the surveyed e-book readers—were in large part (48 percent) unsure on this question as well.

Larra Clark, ALA Program on Networks Director, expressed concern at the seeming contradiction between “our messaging and the role of libraries and how we talk about libraries as the place of discovery.” Paging through the libraries and e-book patrons topline questionnaire, I was struck by where libraries appeared in the response to the question: Do you ever get recommendations for things to read from any of the following sources?

    64% - family/friends/coworkers

    34% - online (bookstores or other sites)

    23% - bookstore staff (in person)

    19% - library, librarian, library website

Respondents ranked libraries at the bottom of potential book recommendation sources. It may come as no surprise, then, that awareness of e-book lending services appears to be so low: When libraries are excluded from the discovery process, it’s all the more likely readers won’t turn to them first for reading material.

Other figures from the Pew report bear this out: E-book readers were found to be more likely to buy e-books or borrow from friends than to borrow from libraries (see: Q20 in the e-reading topline questionnaire). Even more revealing are answers to the question, “When you want to read a particular e-book, where do you usually look for it first?": Seventy-five percent of respondents visit online bookstores or other websites, while just 12 percent answered that libraries get the first look.

The surveys’ findings on school-age children are limited and mixed. While 16- and 17-year-olds polled were more likely than other age groups to have library cards, they tended to consider libraries less important than did older respondents. The survey on libraries and e-books was distributed only to adults (18 and over), leaving lots of questions about teenagers’ use of library e-book services. Parents of young children expressed strong interest in classes on using e-readers and downloading e-books, suggesting a possible bump in children familiar with e-reading devices from a young age.

Several chat participants wondered at the report’s 16-and-over focus: Why not also investigate e-reading habits among youth? Study co-author Kathryn Zickuhr explained that, not only does Pew prefer separate data collection processes for adults and teenagers, but it’s also more difficult to gather this kind of information directly from children. Any survey would necessarily involve parent participation and the results would not be purely self-reported. A broader report on library use is expected in Spring 2013—Pew was about to distribute a survey as of the conference date—and that may offer insight into the library habits and attitudes of teens and young children.

The rise of e-reading will require librarians to rethink how they foster discovery, exploration, and curiosity using library resources. This isn’t at all a bad thing, despite the dour, end-is-near tone of one news story after another on the future of libraries. As you likely saw in Catherine Gewertz’s recent profile of school librarians leading Common Core curriculum development, librarians are capable of immense creativity and resilience. The key, says Clark, is “understanding and looking for ways to apply our core values to this new space.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.