New Reports: Ebooks, Libraries, and Reading Trends

July 29, 2015

The view from Cheyenne Mountain Resort, Colorado Springs, Colo. (Photo by James LaRue)
The view from Cheyenne Mountain Resort, Colorado Springs, Colo. (Photo by James LaRue)

I am writing from the Research Institute for Public Libraries, a four-day “data boot camp” at Cheyenne Mountain Resort in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Our first keynote came from Lee Rainie, director of internet, science, and technology at Pew Research Center. He shared some soon-to-be-published data (keep an eye on that’s worth thinking about.

He paired two trends: On the one hand, enthusiasm for the public library and librarians is on the rise. On the other, library use is falling. The latter decline isn’t huge, but it is systemic.

It appears that our patrons aren’t reading less. But increasingly, it seems they’re not getting their content from the library or from library mobile apps. One conclusion might be that library users have new and positive expectations about us—libraries are places to hang out or investigate new technology, for instance. That appears to be true. Perhaps this is simply a shift in public perception of our purpose.

But Rainie didn’t ask a question that matters: What library alternatives are people using to find digital content?

Other research reveals a slowdown in ebook sales and a lack of interest in ebooks by bookstore patrons. Perhaps it’s all of a piece: ebooks, what a flash in the pan! We can all go comfortably back to, I don’t know, 2004. Those were the days, eh?

But I think there’s a likelier explanation. Public libraries have done such a poor job of meeting public demand for ebooks that a new generation or at least a new profile of readers has given up on us. The new market may have slowed down for a bit, but it might just have moved on altogether, building up momentum somewhere else. Not in libraries. Not in our balky, delayed-gratification apps. Not in bookstores.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. Blame the Big Five and their punitive and predatory pricing and licenses. Blame our distributors, whose systems for order, delivery, and integration of digital content drive customers screaming to the One Click convenience of Amazon. Blame librarians, who have apparently accepted as normal the gap between a 50% e-reading patron population and having only 8% of our collections to serve them.

I’ll be speaking in a couple of days here at the institute about using data to tell a story. I’ll start with an obvious point: Data, by itself, doesn’t change anybody’s mind. Does it?