Released: June 22, 2012

Libraries, patrons, and e-books

Part 7: Non-e-book borrowers

By , , , and

Fully 76% of libraries lend e-books to patrons, according to the ALA.55 Yet, most citizens, even those who are library patrons, are unsure of whether their local library offers this service. Asked if their public library lent e-books to patrons, 63% of those ages 16 and older who do not already read or borrow e-books from libraries are unable to say if the library does or does not lend them. Some 22% say that their library does lend out e-books, and 14% say that it does not.

Even among library fans and patrons, many are relatively in the dark about whether their local library offers e-book lending in the first place:

Among the 22% of non-borrowers who said their libraries did offer e-book borrowing, those who were most likely to say their library lent out e-books included: those ages 50 and older, those with at least some college experience or a college degree, those living in households earning $50,000 or more. The non-e-book borrowers who were most likely to say their local library did not facilitate e-book borrowing included: African-Americans, Hispanics, and those under age 30 (especially those ages 16-17).

Many librarians say that despite their increasing use of technology, libraries are still seen as collections of print books and the occasional microfiche machine. “People still think of libraries as old dusty books on shelves, and it’s a perception we’re always trying to fight,” the director of information technology at the Boston Public Library told the New York Times in 2009.56 This impression has still been slow to change. In fact, the OCLC’s recent report, “Perceptions of Libraries, 2010: Context and Community,” found that if anything, the association of libraries with books has become stronger in recent years. “As new consumer devices and online services have captured the information consumer’s time and mindshare, his perception of libraries as books has solidified,” the report said, with 75% of survey respondents saying that “books” is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the library—up from 69% in 2005.57

For more about how libraries communicate with patrons about services, please see the section titled “Checking out e-books” in Part 6 of this report.

Why not borrow e-books?

In the December 2011 national phone survey, we asked the 88% of e-book readers who did not borrow e-books from libraries in the past 12 months whether they had tried do so: Only 4% reported that they had attempted this, and 96% had not. Looking specifically at e-book readers, we find that 84% of those who read an e-book in the previous year did not try to borrow one from their local library.

There was no one dominant reason as to why e-book readers who do not borrow books from their public library do not do so. About one in five (22%) cited issues of convenience, often saying it was easier to obtain e-books another way. A similar number (19%) said that they didn’t know their library offered e-books in the first place. The full list of reasons is shown in the following table.

Help and training from librarians

We also asked those who do not already borrow e-books at the public library how likely they would be to take advantage of certain resources if their library were to offer it. The results:

While about three in ten people ages 16 and older are interested in taking classes on e-readers or downloading e-books, the most popular idea was pre-loaded e-readers: almost half (46%) said that they would check out e-readers already loaded with the book they wanted to read. Currently, this practice is not particularly widespread at public libraries; some 15% of public libraries circulate preloaded e-reading devices (up from 5% the previous year), and 26% expect to in the future, according to the 2011 survey from Library Journal and School Library Journal.58 Meanwhile, according to the ALA’s 2011-2012 Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study, 39% of libraries offer e-readers to patrons for check-out.59

All three possibilities are most popular with minorities, those under age 65, those in households making less than $30,000 per year, those who had not completed high school, and parents of minor children. Among the other significant findings:

  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.
  2. Motoko Rich, “Libraries and Readers Wade Into Digital Lending.” New York Times, October 14, 2009.
  3. “Perceptions of Libraries, 2010: Context and Community.” OCLC. Available online at
  4. “2011 E-book Penetration & Use in U.S. Libraries Survey” from Library Journal and School Library Journal
  5. “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.