Released: June 22, 2012

Libraries, patrons, and e-books

Part 8: Final thoughts

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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:

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:

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


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:


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:

  1. See Part 5: Where and how readers get their books. Available online at
  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. And a broader examination by the ALA into the future of libraries is available at: