OverDrive/ALA Survey on Library Ebook Borrowers

November 16, 2012

The recently released OverDrive/ALA survey of visitors to OverDrive library sites presents some interesting insights into this subset of ebook readers and their behaviors. Before we can talk about any of the survey results, however, it must be clearly noted that this was not a scientific study: The sample is not representative of anything, but is just indicative of the people who clicked on the survey link on the OverDrive site through their library’s website.

In fact, the demographics of the respondents to the OverDrive survey vary quite a bit from those reported in the Pew Research Center’s April 2012 survey The Rise of E-Reading. Pew’s sample found a roughly even split between males and females and a higher concentration of ebook reading among those aged 18–49 as compared to over 50. The respondents to the OverDrive survey were 78% female with more than half of them over the age of 50. Why the differences? My first information-seeking question would be to ask whether or not the OverDrive survey was available from its mobile apps or only on its library customers’ websites—my thought being that readers aged 18–49 would be more likely accessing those participating libraries’ websites from a mobile device and therefore might not have seen the link to the survey. Again, as OverDrive clearly states, this is not a scientific study but rather a gathering of information from a nonrepresentative sample of users. We should take from this survey what we can, but not read too much into it.

What can we take away from the survey? Well, I find it intriguing that over half of the respondents stated that they learned about downloading ebooks from the library website. Less than 20%, though, heard about the service from a librarian (or, one presumes, another library staff person) or saw promotional materials. This shows some serious room for improvement! You can’t make it through the checkout counter of most major store chains without being asked if you want to open a credit card; why not have a standardized greeting and offer at the library checkout as well? If your library uses a circulation receipt system, why not include a message about ebook offerings on there also?

Another interesting question asked about the benefits of the library’s ebook service. Publishers reading these results will certainly be wringing their hands over the top responses. Leading the pack with almost 92% of respondents was “Free” while “Convenience” and “24/7 access” came in a very close second and third. Again, some opportunities here for tweaking the library message. We need to remind our patrons that services like OverDrive certainly are not free. The library pays both for the service and for the ebooks. It’s just that the payment, like the payment for print books, is less obvious as a general tax-based expense spread across the community. If libraries work on spreading this understanding, maybe publishers can work on one of the least favorable responses: Less than a quarter of those surveyed were impressed with the selection of titles available.

One question that differs from other ebook surveys asked about the device(s) used to read ebooks. Recent Pew surveys, and other data sets from institutions like Library Journal, have pretty consistently shown desktop or laptop computers to be the primary point of readership for ebooks for about half of the respondents. In the OverDrive question about devices, however, we finally see responses more like what I would expect. Just over 80% of respondents report reading on a dedicated device like a Kindle or Nook, with only about 25% reporting reading on a desktop or laptop. Smartphones and tablets each got just under 20%—though I expect this might be on the rise with the rapid growth of crossover tablets like the Kindle Fire.

Finally, there are a couple of questions about purchasing books and how that relates to ebook reading and library usage. I worry, however, about trying to engage in too much analysis of these responses given the highly skewed demographics of the survey participants. It is entirely too tempting to conclude that library ebook readers buy books when really all this survey shows is that women over the age of 50 with a household income of greater than $75,000 a year who read ebooks through OverDrive buy about three books a month. Or they might not. What the responses do clearly show is that people who filled out a survey on a library website overwhelmingly (if not amazingly) prefer to get their books from the library. They also have lots of love for online bookstores—but not much for physical bookstores—which may suggest that there could be some crossover between library borrowers and ebook purchasers. And yes, the respondents did indicate that they are buying more ebooks (but fewer print books) including, in about a third of the cases, some personal copies of books they checked out. But please don’t try to base too strong of a statement on this survey without additional supporting evidence from a broader review of library and ebook users.

So what did we learn from this survey? Actually, quite a bit. Libraries need to do a better job of spreading the word about ebook services beyond just links on their websites. Consider adding a statement to a circulation desk greeting and increasing the visibility of ebooks on library signage and interactions like checkout receipts. We also need to do a better job of ensuring that our patrons understand the importance of their continued support of library funding to ensure continuation of the “free” services they love. But we also need more support from publishers to increase the availability of titles. Readership might be shifting to a more device-focused pattern; is your library ready to answer questions about device support for library ebooks during the upcoming holiday season? What titles work on what devices? Is there an app for your services on iOS and the various Android (Kindle, Nook, Google, etc.) platforms?

In the end, what we learned from this survey is that we have a lot more work to do in spreading information about libraries and ebooks. More information to our patrons, and certainly more information to our publisher partners. So get out there and share!