New Research Finds Public Awareness Gap about Ebooks in Libraries
By Larra Clark
A new report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project finds that 12% of readers of ebooks borrowed an ebook from their libraries in the past year, and a majority of respondents (62%) don’t know if their local library provides ebooks. Somewhat startlingly, even 58% of library card holders were unsure if their library offered the service.
“Clearly there is an opportunity here for libraries to step up our outreach and increase public awareness of all the 21st century services our libraries have to offer readers, thinkers, entrepreneurs, and dreamers,” said ALA Past President Molly Raphael.
Conducted in segments between November 2011 and May 2012 with thousands of people who are at least 16 years old, the study also found that even though two-thirds of ebook borrowers appreciate the selection of ebooks at their local library, a majority were either unable to borrow an ebook they were seeking (56%) or encountered wait lists (52%).
The June 22 report, “Libraries, Patrons, and E-books,” is part of a larger research effort examining the changing role of public libraries in the digital age that is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.While the study’s “headlines” about awareness and use of ebooks have captured media attention, this report and future planned research offer libraries valuable intelligence now regarding who is using (or not using) public libraries, as well as their experiences in, and perceptions and expectations of, libraries.
The top two reasons respondents gave for not borrowing ebooks from the library, for instance, have implications for negotiations with ebook intermediaries and for library marketing. About one in five (22%) cited issues of convenience, saying it was often easier to obtain ebooks another way; a similar percentage (19%) said that they didn’t know they could borrow from the library.
Nonetheless, there is public interest in getting help from libraries about how to use ebooks. Forty-six percent would be “very” or “somewhat” likely to borrow an e-reading device loaded with a title they want to read, and 32% would be interested in taking a library class on how to download ebooks onto handheld devices or how to use an e-reader or tablet computer.
Beyond ebooks, Pew’s nationally representative poll found 58% of those surveyed have a library card, and 69% say their local library is important to them and their family. Paradoxically, some of the demographic groups less likely to have library cards (e.g., Hispanics or those with a household income of less than $30,000 per year) are more likely to say the library is important to them.
Overall, library card holders report they are: more likely to buy than to borrow books, read more books per year than non-card holders (an average of 20 compared with 13), read more types of content (including newspapers, magazines, and journals), and use more technology than non-card holders—which suggests library users make a good target audience for publishers. Fifty-six percent said they had used a public library at least once in the past year; among the leading interactions were borrowing print books (35%), accessing historical documents or genealogical records (25%), and getting research help (20%).
Pew also solicited thousands of online comments from library staff and patrons about their ebook experiences. Most library staff respondents noted increased investment in and use of ebook collections, and many patrons reported their library usage shifting increasingly to the library website. “In the past, I had to stop in the library to pick up print books I had reserved. Now that I can also download ebooks, I go to the building less often, but my total checkouts have increased,” said one library patron.
Although library staff reported that the evolution to digital content has had a positive impact on their professional role, many expressed frustration at keeping up with technology and having inadequate training. “There is no past tense for a system that is constantly evolving. Some staff take ownership to learn themselves, and others want to but do not grasp the fundamentals,” said one respondent.
The next phase of research, starting this fall, will focus on the range and rationale for new library services and explore public attitudes toward the choices libraries face in the services they can offer. Library staff can join the research by clicking the “participate” section of the Pew website.
LARRA CLARK is director of Program on Networks at ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy.
American Libraries, Wed, 07/11/2012 - 10:24