Released: June 22, 2012

Libraries, patrons, and e-books

Part 5: Libraries in transition

By , , , and

How patrons’ book-borrowing habits are changing

The findings reported in this chapter come entirely from the online canvassings of patrons and librarians. The patron respondents in our opt-in sample were frequent visitors of both their library’s physical branch and website. They use their library’s website regularly to reserve books and download e-books, while physical branches were for print check-outs and the occasional research query. One patron’s description of her library habits was representative of many in our online panel: “I go to the library branch much less often and I use the library website several times per week. Before I got my e-book reader, I visited my library at least weekly and almost never used the website, except to reserve books.”

Many librarians echoed this. “Our customers are still using the library but in different ways. They browse our catalog online, place reserves on the items they want, then pick them up at their location of choice. Many fewer browse the collection in person,” one library department head told us. Another librarian observed, “We have so many people who only call us to update their library card so they can borrow e-books online.” A patron respondent had a similar story: “Fifteen years ago, I regularly visited the library twice a week. Now I go about once a month and often that is just to drop off books that are due or pick up books that I have reserved. I would prefer to do ALL of my library business online and have many more materials available in e-book format.”

Many patrons who were already using their library’s website to reserve books and then picking the books up; e-books allow them to do the same thing entirely online:

Librarians likewise said that the rising interest in e-books was one of the most striking changes to patrons’ habits. One library director described the sharp increase in demand for e-books in the last few years: “I graduated from library school in 2008 and the was little or no demand for e-books, mainly because the Kindle wasn’t compatible with the e-book lending services until very recently and the NOOK didn’t come out until 2010. Once the NOOK came out and the Kindle had become popular the demand for e-books increased significantly.” Another respondent told us, “People are asking for digital content. Anything digital. They are hungry for it.”

Some patrons said that all that has changed is that they use the website for e-books more, but still visit the library’s physical location as much as they did before. Others said that their physical visits have increased: “I go to the library more because in searching for e-books, I’ll often find a book I want to read that is not available electronically, so I reserve it in print, and go to the library to pick it up. While I’m there, my children browse, and we take home more books.”

Yet even as some adults shifted to e-books, they wrote that they still returned to the library for print books for children and young adults. “The biggest change is that I download e-books more frequently,” one parent wrote. “However, with five kids, we are at the library a lot. It is our home away from home. We love our local library and truly can’t imagine life without it.”

Many librarians said that patrons were now interested in a wider variety types of digital and multi-media holdings—encompassing not only e-books and audiobooks, but also video games and DVDs. Yet many library staff members said that digital media are not necessarily replacing traditional materials. “Patrons increasingly request e-book content, but this seems to be in addition to their already-established library habits, and has not replaced any existing hardcopy media,” one library staff member told us. Similarly, patrons often wrote that e-book borrowing often complemented their established reading habits. “I don’t feel that my e-book reader has changed any of my patterns involving the local library. I still visit it frequently, and I still check out books in print. However, I feel that I do read more often with my e-book reader because there are just that many more things available to read (and I can acquire them almost instantly),” one e-book borrower said.

As one librarian pointed out, the prevalence of online systems for checking out e-books, reserving print books, and paying fines means while that patrons may have less “routine” interaction with library staff, they require more “specialized help” in the form of tech support. Many others echoed this. “It seems that most people who actually contact a librarian are looking for help navigating the site and downloading e-books,” one librarian told us. Another wrote, “We spend a significant part of our day explaining how to get library books onto e-book readers.”

The issue is even more pronounced with patrons who have not had much experience with technology in the past. One librarian detailed how the increased popularity of e-book reading devices has resulted in library staff spending more time on the basic tech support: “Many of our older patrons received electronic devices as gifts over the past two years. This group of library users asks for lots of help with their devices, from plugging them in to turning them on to trying to make them interface with the e-book portion of the library website.”  (For more about this topic, please see Part 8: Future Thoughts.)

It should be noted that even among our panel of librarians whose libraries lend out e-books, not all face a huge demand for their electronic titles. “My library serves an economically challenged area so we have not had the demand for e-books that other libraries are experiencing,” one director wrote. “Large numbers of our patrons have not been able to invest in e-book readers or tablets.” However, she added that the library had also seen “an increase in people using their mobile phones to access library services.”

Librarians: Changes in library holdings

As noted in the first section of this report, the scope and popularity of most libraries’ digital holdings have increased and increasing levels of usage are driving the change. Our online panels reflected this trend, with most of the library staff who responded to our online questionnaire reporting that e-book circulation at their library had more than doubled in the past year (compared with the previous year).

In our online questionnaire, library staff described how they are attempting to fund e-book collections in response to rising patron demand. One common strategy mentioned by these librarians was to shift some funds allocated from printed collections to digital collections. Others mentioned cutting increasingly obsolete resources, like collections of cassettes or VHS tapes, as well as databases that are rarely used:

Among the library staff who responded to our questionnaire, about half said that their library pays for patron access to e-books out of a collection budget. The next most common response was that the library participates in a consortium that pays and provides access to all consortium members, as public libraries in Wisconsin have recently done. In this collective agreement, Wisconsin libraries will “pool their resources and create a $1 million fund to lease new e-content in 2012.”

According to Library Journal’s 2012 Book Buying Survey, print books account for on average 61% of libraries’ spending on materials, compared with 20% for media and 4% for e-books. The survey found that libraries’ book budgets declined 2% over the past year, even as most libraries increased their spending on e-books.38);" >] And, according to the ALA’s 2011-2012 Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study, 57% of libraries report flat or decreased operating budgets in FY2012.39);" >]

The changing roles of librarians

Over half of the librarians among our online respondents said that the evolution of e-book reading devices and digital content has had a good impact on their role as a librarian:

Others were more ambivalent:

Most library staff respondents said that they feel the availability of e-books brings new patrons into the system, although they generally did not feel that the advent of e-books necessarily brought younger readers into contact with the library more often. One librarian said that while she was happy that e-books brought in “21st century readers,” she felt that libraries did not have enough control over the terms of this new format. “There is not much out there in workshops dedicated to e-books because of the wariness in approaching this new form that doesn’t seem to be too library friendly,” she wrote. “But more and more people are buying books in digital format because of ease and use. This trickles down to the library and its traditional role of lending, which makes for more patron usage.”

One of the biggest frustrations that many librarians mentioned was their new role as tech support for their community. “Customers expect the librarians to be proficient on all mobile devices,” one branch manager wrote, adding that “[m]ore and more the librarian’s role has evolved to that of a teacher.”

Another librarian, however, did not see the emphasis on technology as new to the role. “Showing patrons how to use digital content and e-book readers is not much different than showing people how to use the micro-film machine or our public computers except it might take a little more time,” she said. (For more  about this topic, please see Part 8: Future Thoughts.)

The move to e-books

Staff training

With so many patrons relying on library staff to troubleshoot their e-reading devices, the issue of training staff members themselves on those devices is an important one, according to some of the respondents. However, the training experiences of the respondents to our librarian questionnaire were mixed.

The library staff members that had the most positive training experiences often mentioned having extensive hands-on instruction with the devices, especially when the library or individual staff members were given devices on which to practice at home. Enthusiastic staff members who shared what they learned with each other, as well as flexible training programs, were also frequently cited as part of a productive training environment. Many also mentioned their personal experiences reading on these devices as useful in helping answer patrons’ questions:

Meanwhile, the hallmarks of poor training experiences were clearly spelled out by respondents. They included disorganized training programs, out-of-date materials, and “theoretical” training that did not include staff members using the devices in question. A common theme was the difficulty of keeping up with the pace of technological change. “Keeping up with procedures, formats, and devices, especially when the landscape changes daily is difficult,” one library staff member told us. “Tutorials and handouts do not stay up to date.”

Another library staff respondent described the process as “very difficult and ongoing”:

“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. In our library there is one person I can confidently say can answer all e-book questions, and maybe one third of our staff can manage everyday e-book questions. This is the state after multiple staff trainings and a lending program where staff were asked to take e-book readers home and practice.”

Others had similarly frustrating experiences:

Many respondents said that their training experiences fell somewhere in the middle. One staff member told us that the training process in her library system was “very gradual”:

“A few early adopters learned to use OverDrive when we first subscribed and became the go-to people at their branches. Other staff learned from shadowing them and asking questions. We had a device or two at our library branch to learn the technology at our own pace. Some staff members were daunted by the technology—some are still shy to help patrons with download questions but many others bought e-book readers this year and became confident users and instructors.”

Patron training

Among the librarians who answered our online questionnaire, the vast majority of respondents said their library offered at least some form of instruction on e-readers and e-books for patrons. In-person classes and printed tutorials or FAQs were the most frequently cited forms of instruction on e-readers and the digital check-out process. Some also offered online tutorials, although these were not as popular. “We have classes monthly and an overwhelmingly successful eight-hour drop-in day soon after Christmas, which brought 120 e-book reader users to the library,” one department head wrote.

For libraries that offered patrons training on how to use their e-reading devices, the shifting technology landscape could be overwhelming for the instructors. One librarian said that while her library initially offered classes to patrons, “there were too many different devices and everyone wanted individual instruction on not just OverDrive, but their [specific] device.”

Most of our online patron panel said they taught themselves how to use their e-reader and download books from their library. A majority said that their library did offer classes on how to use e-readers and check out e-books, but for those whose library did not offer such classes, most said they would not be interested in attending such classes even if their library did offer them. A few others turned to YouTube tutorials, in-store help from Barnes & Noble store staff, Amazon tutorials, and various online instructions.

  1. “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.