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New from Pew: The Rise of e-Reading

Earlier this week, the Pew Internet & American Life Project released its new study, The Rise of e-Reading.

Here are some of the key findings from the Summary of the report by researchers by Lee Rainie, Kathryn Zickuhr, Kristen Purcell, Mary Madden and Joanna Brenner, who surveyed of 2,986 Americans ages 16 and older between November and December 2011:

  • A fifth of American adults have read an e-book in the past year and the number of e-book readers grew after a major increase in ownership of e-book reading devices and tablet computers during the holiday gift-giving season.
  • The average reader of e-books says she has read 24 books (the mean number) in the past 12 months, compared with an average of 15 books by a non-e-book consumer.
  • 30% of those who read e-content say they now spend more time reading, and owners of tablets and e-book readers particularly stand out as reading more now.
  • The prevalence of e-book reading is markedly growing, but printed books still dominate the world of book readers.
  • There are four times more people reading e-books on a typical day now than was the case less than two years ago.
  • Those who own e-book readers and tablets are avid readers of books in all formats.
  • E-book reading happens across an array of devices, including smartphones.
  • In a head-to-head competition, people prefer e-books to printed books when they want speedy access and portability, but print wins out when people are reading to children and sharing books with others.
  • The availability of e-content is an issue to some.
  • The majority of book readers prefer to buy rather than borrow.
  • Overall, people read for a variety of reasons.

26% of those who had read a book in the past 12 months said that what they enjoyed most was learning, gaining knowledge, and discovering information.

15% cited the pleasures of escaping reality, becoming immersed in another world, and the enjoyment they got from using their imaginations.

12% said they liked the entertainment value of reading, the drama of good stories, the suspense of watching a good plot unfold.

12% said they enjoyed relaxing while reading and having quiet time.

6% liked the variety of topics they could access via reading and how they could find books that particularly interested them.

4% said they enjoy finding spiritual enrichment through reading and expanding their worldview.

3% said they like being mentally challenged by books.

2% cited the physical properties of books – their feel and smell – as a primary pleasure

  • Demographics of e-book readers. 29% of adult book readers had read an e-book in the past 12 months. Overall, that comes to 21% of all adults. Those who read e-books are more likely to be under age 50, have some college education, and live in households earning more than $50,000.
  • Those who own e-book reading devices stand out from other book readers and there are sometimes differences among device owners in their reading habits. Our December 2011 survey found that those age 16 and older who own tablets or e-book reading devices are more likely than others to read for every reason: for pleasure, for personal research, for current events, and for work or school.
  • Device owners read more often.
  • Device owners are more likely to buy books.
  • Book recommendations. Overall, owners of e-reading devices are more likely than all Americans 16 and older to get book recommendations from people they knew (81% vs. 64%) and bookstore staff (31% vs. 23%). [21% of ereader and tablet owners and 19% of all those 16 and older get their recommendations from librarians or library websites]

This study offers quite a lot to digest. It should fuel real discussion and inform library practice.

ALA President Molly Raphael offered this response to the report, focusing on findings relating to equity and availability of content:

Of great concern, though, are findings that there is a significant gap in those who have read an e-book in the last year versus those who did not based on level of education and income (34 percent of those who read an e-book had some college education, compared to 19 percent of high school graduates or less education; and 38 percent of those with household incomes greater than $75,000 had read an e-book, compared with 20 percent of those with incomes less than $30,000), and that fewer people overall are reading books. The percentage of adults who said they had NOT read a book in the last year or did not answer the question is 22 percent – which is greater than the percentage of adults who read an e-book. This compares to past Gallup surveys about reading in which 17 percent of adults did not answer the question or reported not reading in the past year in 2005, or 12 percent who reported this was the case in 1978, when the first Gallup survey took place.

Another issue to watch is the availability of e-content. While a majority reports they find e-content in the format they want, 23 percent say the material they want is “only sometimes,” “hardly ever” or never available. This certainly demands more attention and research.

While it’s encouraging that some people are reading more, the nation cannot afford to continue losing readers.

Molly goes on to list several major literacy initiatives conducted by libraries and by ALA.

It should be no surprise that e-reading is on the rise.

Among the big questions for me are:

  • Can libraries better address equity (and literacy) issues revealed by the Pew demographics?
  • How do school libraries promote reading across platforms?
  • Can we find ways to (afford to) provide content to all readers across platforms?
  • Should we focus more of our print purchasing on books that are likely read aloud?
  • Can library e-content borrowing be more stream-lined to appeal to on-demand users?
  • How do we get more involved in providing both needed and desired content to our constituents?
  • How do we get more involved in making and broadcasting platform-agnostic book recommendations?

I am certain I have not thought of so many of the questions likely to inspired by the study.  Please share your own in Comments.

One worry, of course, is that the study might be used as a case against libraries.  Aside from the equity issue (a major issue!), while we want to be serious participants in the world of  e-content, how do we continue to get out the word that though books are a traditional part of our brand, they are not, by any means, the whole brand?

So, what does the Pew study mean to you?

For more information:

Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza


  1. Bryan Bangs says

    The real innovation in e readers has been giving consumers a convenient way to buy books, wirelessly, without even having to use their computers, says Sarah Rotman Epps, a Forrester Research analyst. Giving consumers a digital storefront right in their hands, that’s what really made e-readers a phenomenon.

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