June 22, 2012

Libraries, patrons, and e-books

Part 8: Final thoughts

How patron’s reading habits have changed since reading and borrowing e-books.

While some of the respondents to our online queries of patrons said that their reading habits had not changed, many said that they are indeed doing more “impulse” reading since the advent of e-books due to the ease of obtaining and reading books wherever they are. They are also catching up on the classics (due to free, legal public domain copies online), and checking out titles they would not have noticed otherwise. “I am reading a lot of self-published books now since they are often offered for free. I am also downloading a lot of classics, for the same reason,” one online respondent told us. Others were even branching out into new genres due to availability. “I was never a huge mystery fan but now read a lot of those because when I was searching for free or low-priced e-books, a lot of the ones I found were mystery,” another respondent wrote. “Now I am really into the mystery genre!”

Many patron respondents echoed our recent e-reading report’s findings about attitudes toward e-books and the ease of “on the go” reading.60 As one frequent traveler put it, “my suitcase is so much lighter!” Other respondents mentioned similar benefits:

  • “I am reading more because it is easy and accessible. A book I have on my tablet at home is … also on my phone so I can read it on my lunch break. I can read at night without bothering my husband with a light. I do not have to do all of that irritating ‘leaving the house’ business to get a new and interesting book to read.”
  • “My Kindle fits in my purse, so I can carry my Kindle places I wouldn’t carry a book. I find myself taking it almost everywhere I go so if I find myself with a free couple of minutes, I can read a couple of pages.”
  • “I have always been a reader, but I’m reading more books now that I have an e-book reader, and I’m getting through them more quickly. … I find that my family members and I also spend more time discussing the books that we are reading because my brother, my mom, my cousins and my aunts all have Kindles and can share books with each other more easily.”
  • “I read a lot more with e-books. I’ve ventured out into new genres and authors that I would never have found in the print world—my local library doesn’t have them and neither does our local book store.”
  • “I read multiple books all the time. An audiobook for my car and commute. An e-book for ‘whenever’ and print books for relaxing at home. I’m an impulse reader with my Kindle, not so much with print books.”

Larger changes in library services

Many of the library staff members who responded to our online questionnaire wrote that they not only provide access to technology, but also must help patrons learn tech fundamentals. Their patrons often need help with many basic tasks, from setting up an email account and filling out online forms, to finding and navigating necessary websites. As one library staff member explained, “The greatest change has been the need not only for computer access, but computer assistance. Since people are required to apply for jobs and government services online, and many people in our area lack the skills to do so, we have seen a substantial rise in the need for computers, computer classes, and especially one-on-one assistance.”

According to the ALA’s 2011-2012 Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study:

  • 90% of libraries offer formal or informal technology assistance to library users, and 35% offer one-on-one technology training by appointment.
  • 36% of libraries report increased use of library technology training over the previous year.
  • 62% of libraries report that they are the only source of free public access to computers and the Internet in their communities.
  • 91% of public libraries provide free Wi-Fi, and 74% of libraries report use of Wi-Fi increased in 2011.61

One library department head framed it another way. “Many of the needs are the same, but access has changed. Patrons still need help with resumes, but now they use computer templates. They still need to apply for jobs, but now they do it online and MUST have email accounts. They still need encyclopedias, but they want electronic access to them. They still have to prep for tests, but the test prep is available through a database or website.”

One librarian added that, after the holidays, “Many ‘grandmother’ types called for help with the e-book-reader they got for Christmas. They do not have a home computer so registering the items and downloading from their non-existent home computer is difficult, to say the least.” The process is especially difficult when staff members are not up to speed on all the devices. “Many of the staff do not understand the process—so how can they show the patrons how to do it?” one librarian wondered.

Even communities that have not seen a strong demand for e-books are still facing more patron demand for technological services. One library staff respondent described the habits of her library’s community, which serves a relatively older population with many retirees:

“Unlike our sister library systems in larger, metropolitan cities, we have not yet seen a strong shift to digital technologies, but there are signs that it’s coming. … Because 60% of our population is 65 or older, we have also seen an increased demand for technology courses to be taught in the libraries: getting started with computers, basic computer maintenance, getting started with web browsing, learning Word formatting, and the occasional ‘hot topic’ such as Facebook, Twitter, etc.”

One library director in our online panel summarized the technology demands a modern library can face:

“You need enough computers to meet demand for users of all ages. You need enough tutor rooms available for small group study. You need to know how to download an e-book and audiobook. You need to know what is better – the Kindle, the NOOK or the iPad? You need to have enough e-books to meet demand. You need to know what URL accesses the state’s unemployment and food stamp sites. You need to have enough electrical plugs for laptop or cell phone chargers. You need to provide service of some kind seven days/week (i.e. website, mobile app, etc.) You need to have a good media collection.”

Beyond technology, respondents also reported a shift in the library’s role to that of a community gathering space. “The library has become a community center and meeting space as much as a place to do research and borrow books,” one library director told us. Library staff mentioned increased interest in activities such as craft classes and children’s storytime.

The future of libraries

Patrons

We asked our patron focus group about the future of libraries in a digital world. Among our respondents, most said that it was “very important” that libraries continue to provide physical copies of books. “I really like books in print,” one told us. “I don’t think my e-book reader will ever replace that.” Added another, “I really like e-books, but there will always be the joy of holding a hard copy of a book, curled up on the couch in a blanket, drinking a warm beverage while the snow falls outside and a cat sitting on your feet.”

Others mused on the future of reading, and libraries:

  • “I believe that the library of the future is going to look very different. I don’t think it is going to be any less important to a community, but I do think it will be very different from what it is now. I don’t think it will have as many physical books and I think it will be more of a meeting place, a place where meetings are held or study sessions. I think that librarians will find their jobs changing much like people in the media have had to adjust to new technology. But I hope that libraries will still be there in the future because I can’t imagine a world without them.”
  • “The biggest drawback of e-books for me is that I miss the feel and smell of the paper. I even miss the little signs of previous readers—margin notes, cookie crumbs, forgotten bookmarks, etc. E-books are always very ‘sterile.’ I also very much dislike the fact that, unlike paper books, the e-book publishers can (and do) limit the number of times, or even completely prevent me from sharing the e-books I purchase. And as far as I am aware, there is no such thing as a ‘used’ e-book market. Once the file has been downloaded to my device, I can read it or delete it, but I am unaware of any method by which I can give or sell it to someone else when removing it from my device.”
  • “Our library is a critical link in our community. It provides access to books, computers, knowledge, and is a critical social center.”
  • “E-books are amazing. As an adult I find it easier to attain a book digitally. However I still like print books for my children especially since they are not computer savvy yet. I still like the luxury of knowing my children can access a book without me being around. They just have to pull it off the shelf. Print books are not obsolete. I hope my library continues to expand their digital media & still have children’s print books.”
  • “Libraries are more than collections of books—no matter what format. Libraries are community centers, the gateway to childhood literacy, the poor man’s university, centers for lifelong learning, provide support for economic development, develop job skills, offer training, education, and enrichment, bridge the information gap, and are vital to the quality of living and infrastructure of each community a library serves. The importance of libraries and their impact on their users cannot be overstated.”
  • “There’s a long way to go with the devices. So far, these things all seem to have been designed by people who love computers. A lot of us don’t love computers, and use them because they help us accomplish things. That doesn’t mean we enjoy thinking about file types and file names and frozen screens and little bitty buttons that aren’t labeled and aren’t intuitive.”
  •  “I think our libraries are valuable resources for so many reasons. Maintaining the physical printed book is as important to me as a growing library selection of e-books and audiobooks. People are so used to going online and having instant gratification—I don’t think that this is something that can or should be ignored. Having available e-books is also invaluable to keep our youth interested in reading. They are growing up accustomed to this, and if we want to keep them reading throughout their lives, we must provide books in the formats that they will use.”
  • “The frustration is incredible—different platforms, different cords, needing power source, twisting cords. I really wish e-books had never been invented. This is technology that has taken a very simple process and made it so incredibly complicated that is takes the joy out of reading. I LOVE the Internet and technology, so for me to say this is serious. It has made my job so complicated, and my pay is staying the same. One of my biggest worries about e-book readers is the conversations about reading that will never occur—if you cannot see what another person is reading, how can you start a conversation? You can always hide a book cover but if you are reading an e-book reader, people are much less likely to approach you and say ‘great book’ or ‘are you enjoying that book?’ Also—a HUGE worry of mine is the amount of energy and resources being devoted to the ‘cloud.’ No one talks about that because no one wants to give up their gadgets. Another worry is the compensation of authors, the loss of a true publishing house and editors. Ownership of the book—do you really own it? The worry that the book may not be the exact version the author wants you to read. I do think that more people will read because it is so easy.”
  •  “My sister is disabled and losing her eye sight and nearly home bound. I bought her a NOOK Color to help with reading in a larger print. Large print books are too heavy for her to hold up for very long and the print is still too small. She depends on her library and used OverDrive daily for audio books. I’m trying to teach her how to use the new systems for her NOOK. She and many, many more would suffer if they didn’t have access to the library and the programs they provide for us for no fees.”

Librarians

Overall, most librarians from our online panel thought that the evolution of e-book reading devices and digital content has been a good thing for libraries, and all but a few thought that the evolution of e-book reading devices and digital content has been a good thing for reading in general. “I love the ecological benefit of not having the waste of needing to buy a lot of copies and then having to discard half of them two years later,” one library department head told us. “I love that we don’t have to hassle patrons to bring e-materials back. I love that there are no damages, no worn out items, no sticky stains.”

However, most are unsure what sort of roles libraries will take on in the future:

  • “It all feels pretty murky. Some clarity and good advice would be nice. It’s OK for libraries with big budgets to plunge into e-book readers. As a small library with limited collection funds, we have to be more careful.”
  •  “I have observed that Barnes and Noble and Amazon have really pushed the e-media phenomenon, and it was only around the time that Barnes and Noble made e-books their most-advertised product through the layout of their stores, etc., that library patrons started to ask about them often. Therefore, this is a corporate-driven phenomenon, and libraries should be wary of diverting funding, services, and collections to something that is designed primarily as a consumer product for the profit of the distributing companies. It is good for libraries to offer things that patrons are asking for, but at the same time, it would be dangerous for libraries to make e-media a significant focus or majority of their offerings because e-media requires patrons to possess (and therefore purchase outside of the library) a desktop computer, an internet connection, and in most cases an e-book reader. This amounts to thousands of dollars. Where does that leave those who are often the bulk of our users—patrons who are economically downtrodden?”
  •  “I am interested in seeing where this goes and how this will affect library service in the long term. I see a great many benefits and I do not see us giving up physical books or closing down libraries. Much like when we started providing computers with internet access and recognized that there was a significant need for librarian assistance and user instruction, I think that if e-books pick up at the same rate as the internet, we will have a lot of job security not less!”
  1. See Part 5: Where and how readers get their books. Available online at http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2012/04/04/part-5-where-and-how-readers-get-their-books/
  2. “Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study 2011-2012,” the American Library Association and the Information Policy & Access Center (University of Maryland), June 19, 2012. http://www.ala.org/research/plftas/2011_2012 And a broader examination by the ALA into the future of libraries is available at: http://www.ala.org/offices/oitp/publications/policybriefs