The good news, according to a report issued today by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, is that 69% of adults say libraries are important to them and their families. The not-so-good news: surprisingly few library patrons are aware of their library's e-book offerings.
The report, entitled Libraries, Patrons, and E-books, partially underwritten by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, found that just 12% of adult e-book readers say they have borrowed an e-book from a library in the past year. Further, the general public, not just e-book readers, remain largely unaware they can borrow e-books from libraries, with some 62% of respondents saying they did not know their library offered e-book lending, including 58% of library card holders, and 48% of those who say they own an e-reader.
“It was a genuine surprise to see these data, especially after all of the attention that has been paid to the tension between libraries and major book publishers about whether many of the most popular books should be available for lending by libraries,” noted Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet Project.
The report, a companion to another Pew e-book report issued earlier this year, "explores the world of e-books and libraries," including where libraries fit into "the book-consumption patterns" of Americans; borrowing and buying behaviors; the digital transition as it affects readers and librarians; and the potential frustrations e-book borrowers can encounter, from long wait lists and compatibility issues.
Among the report's findings:
47% of all those who read an e-book in the past year say they do not know if their library lends e-books.
Among library e-book borrowers, two thirds had a positive view of their library's holdings: 32% say the selection at their library is “good,” 18% say it is “very good,” and 16% say it is “excellent.”
However, library e-book borrowers also reported difficulties: 56% say they had tried to borrow a particular book and found that the library did not carry it; 52% been put on a waiting list; and 18% say they had device compatibility issues.
Of those who don't borrow e-books, 46% say they would be “very” or “somewhat” likely to borrow an e-reading device that came loaded with a book they wanted to read.
The survey also finds that e-book borrowers are heavy readers, and avid book buyers. E-book borrowers say they read an average of 29 books in the past year compared with 23 books for readers who do not borrow e-books from libraries.
Asked about the most recent book they read, 41% of those who borrow e-books from libraries purchased their most recent e-book.
55% of the e-book readers who have library cards said they preferred to buy their e-books.
The report is drawn from a series of nationally-representative phone surveys of Americans. Statistical information comes from a main survey of 2,986 Americans ages 16 and older, conducted November 16-December 21, 2011. Additional phone surveys were conducted between January 5-8 and January 12-15, 2012, and between January 20 and February 19, 2012. The qualitative material in the report, including extended quotes from individuals regarding e-books and library use, comes from two sets of online interviews that were conducted in May 2012 with librarians and patrons.
In a statement, ALA officials accentuated the positive findings of the Pew survey. “The new report underscores that libraries continue to be a vital part of people’s lives in the digital age," said ALA president Molly Raphael. “The research also confirms that many people look to librarians to support digital literacy and learn new skills that lead to wider adoption of technology. The double and triple-digit growth libraries have reported in demand for e-books, desire for access to e-book readers, and requests for e-book reader assistance and classes clearly express a hunger for these services."
The report, however, also "flags issues that demand attention," she added. "Clearly there is an opportunity here for us to step up our outreach and increase public awareness," Raphael said. "Of course, awareness is not enough. Libraries cannot lend what they cannot obtain."
That statement refers to the ongoing dilemma of library e-book lending, to which the Pew report dedicates an entire section. Currently, only Random House allows e-book lending of its full list, although it recently introduced steep price increases that have drawn criticism from librarians. Simon & Schuster and Macmillan currently do not permit libraries to lend e-books, while Hachette and HarperCollins limit the titles they offer. Earlier this week Penguin announced its decision to begin a pilot program with vendor 3M and New York and Brooklyn Public libraries to sell e-books. Citing "security concerns" Penguin pulled its e-books last year after vendor OverDrive had entered a Kindle e-book lending deal with Amazon that sent library patrons to the Amazon site to complete their lends. Under the pilot program wth 3M, new titles will be embargoed for six months, and e-book purchases will expire after one year.
"When people go to their public libraries to borrow e-books, they should be able to find titles from all of our publishers," Rapahel added. "ALA and others continue to call on publishers to make their e-books available to libraries at fair prices and terms. Libraries seek partners and collaborators to continue building a culture of reading and learning that embraces all formats, for all ages and all backgrounds.”
The survey release comes as librarians and publishers gather for the ALA Annual Conference in Anaheim, CA, where, once again, e-books will loom large, both in the professional program and on the show floor in discussions with publishers. Pew's Lee Rainie, meanwhile, will further discuss the survey findings and implications at the ALA Annual Conference, on Sunday, June 24, at 10:30 a.m. in a session entitled “The Rise of E-reading,” and then on a panel (along with PW contributing editor Peter Brantley) on “Access to Digital Content: Diverse Approaches” at 1:30 p.m.