2012 Libraries in the Digital Age

Internet access at libraries

December 28, 2012

In a survey this fall, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project asked whether people had accessed the internet at a library in the previous 12 months. Some 26% of those ages 16 and older said they had.

Our question was designed to include people who used the wired computers at the library and people who had used the library WiFi connection, too.

There were some notable demographic differences in the answers to this question. African-Americans and Latinos were more likely than whites to access the internet at their local library, as were parents of minor children, those under age 50, and those with some college experience. Some of these findings have been covered in a New York Times debate that began on December 27, 2012.

How important is free computer and internet access at libraries?

We did not ask a question about whether library internet users depend on that connection as their primary internet connection. But we asked respondents to this survey how important they think it is to have free access to computers and the internet at the library in their community.

Some 77% of all those ages 16 and older said it was very important for libraries to offer free access to computers and the internet to the community and another 18% said it was somewhat important. Just 2% said it was not too important and another 2% said it was not important at all.

Again, there were some noteworthy demographic differences in the answers: African-Americans and Latinos were more likely than whites to feel free access was very important. Women and those with some college experience were also especially likely to feel this way.

Another good resource on the matter of computer and internet access at libraries is the Opportunity for All report from researchers at the University of Washington. [Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was an underwriter of that research as well as ours.]

About the survey

The findings reported here come from a survey of 2,252 Americans ages 16 and old on cell phones and landline phones between October 15-November 10, 2012. The surveys were administered in English and Spanish. The margin of error is +/- 2.3 percentage points.

The smell of books

September 28, 2012

What’s in a smell? A book in any format may read the same, but it seems there’s something about the smell of print that e-books just can’t capture—for now.

Earlier this summer, New York Times tech blogger Nick Bilton wrote about wandering into a West Village bookstore on a visit to New York:

“I immediately felt a sense of nostalgia that I haven’t felt in a long time. The scent of physical books—the paper, the ink, the glue—can conjure up memories of a summer day spent reading on a beach, a fall afternoon in a coffee shop, or an overstuffed chair by a fireplace as rain patters on a windowsill.”

But amidst this nostalgic reverie, he considers the advantages of e-books: their search functionality, ease of transport, the ability to share favorite passages with friends. He leaves the bookstore without buying anything.

Yet for some, the added conveniences of electronic books can never make up for the loss of the physical experience of reading a print book. The author Ray Bradbury famously was never a fan of e-books:

“Those aren’t books. . . .  A computer does not smell. There are two perfumes to a book. If a book is new, it smells great. If a book is old, it smells even better. It smells like ancient Egypt. A book has got to smell.”

According to Bradbury, e-books themselves “smell like burned fuel.”

Though none were as caustic as Bradbury, one of the things that struck me in the responses of our online panel was the ambivalence of these avid readers (and e-book borrowers) toward the rise of e-books. Many echoed the same thought: “Nothing can replace the feel and smell of a physical book.”

As another panelist explained:

“I thoroughly enjoy reading from my Kindle. I am honestly surprised because I am an absolute bibliophile. I love the touch, the smell, everything about a paper book. I would find it shameful if paper books were not longer published or made available. For me, my e-reader will NEVER take the place of a paper book, but it does have its own niche.”

However, some patrons noted the downside of the “used book smell.” One wrote:

“I’ve always been a book lover, but not having to deal with dirty, smelly, broken books is really nice. Instead of borrowing [print] books from the library, I’ll buy the e-book if the library’s e-book isn’t available.”

Another said that she doesn’t even borrow print books from the library because she is allergic to perfume, “and the physical books are usually smelly. E-books, on the other hand, have no odor.”

In fact, one patron felt that having fewer books at the library made the library more conducive to reading:

“I like that the libraries are not as cluttered with old smelly books now that the computers and e-book formats are around. It makes the libraries feel less like old bookstores and more like a living room waiting for readers to sit down and read.”

Finally, the results of our national survey indicate that while the lack of a “good book smell” is not a deal-breaker for most readers, it’s certainly not irrelevant.

When we asked readers what they like most about reading books, they gave a variety of responses. Many mentioned the joys of learning, entertainment, or relaxation, but a few (2%) said the physical properties of books—their feel and smell—was their favorite part of reading. And among Americans who don’t currently own an e-reader (like a Kindle or Nook), about 16% said the main reason is that they just prefer print books in general.

Though e-book readers clearly prefer e-books to print in many situations, they may not need to sacrifice all the tactile pleasure of the printed page. In fact, nostalgic e-book readers can now recapture that new- or old-book scent with perfumes such as In The Library and Paper Passion (shown at top). And for the budget reader, Smell of Books™ claims to offer an “aerosol e-book enhancer,” available in scents ranging from its “New Book Smell” and “Classic Musty Smell” (shown below) to “Crunchy Bacon Scent.” Note—Unlike the perfumes mentioned above, this product appears to be tongue-in-cheek.

I’ll close with the words of an online panelist who described her own internal compromise between the pleasures of print and the ease of e-books. “The joy of smelling turning pages can’t be matched by an e-book, but the joy of the story from an e-book can turn someone into a physical book reader,” she said. “And the more we read the better we all are.”

Notes from ALA 2012

July 09, 2012

The Rise of E-Reading

In case you missed it: Our director, Lee Rainie, shared findings from our new report on e-book lending at libraries at the 2012 ALA Annual Conference on Sunday, June 24. He also discussed general reading trends, the rise of e-books, and library patrons’ experiences with e-book borrowing. His slides are available below.

[slideshare id=13444911&doc=theriseofe-reading-120625081058-phpapp01]

(Want to read more? Most of the data in his talk came from our new report, “Libraries, patrons, and e-books,” as well as our previous e-books report, “The rise of e-reading.”)

Lee will also be discussing this material at the ALA Virtual Conference on July 18 starting at 11:45 a.m., EDT.

Digital Differences

I also had a great time discussing our research at a session of the ALA’s Spectrum Leadership Institute on Monday, June 25. We talked about trends in technology access and use among various demographic groups, as well as what these changes might mean for libraries.

[slideshare id=13445883&doc=digitaldifferences-120625093656-phpapp02]

As I mentioned during my talk, senior research specialist Aaron Smith just wrote a new report on “cell mostly” internet users—the 17% of cell phone owners who do most of their online browsing on their phone, rather than a computer or other device. It not only updates our 2011 data, but explores the data in greater detail. As always, it’s available in full online and as a PDF.

At my session, there were a number of great questions about our research methodology, especially why we do not report findings related to Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. Our surveys cover people in all groups, but there are some pretty technical reasons why we do not cite statistics on relatively small demographic groups. A post on the main Pew Internet website explains some of the reasons.

Be sure to check back later for more blog posts exploring different aspects of our latest report, coming soon!

Libraries, patrons, and e-books: A guide to our new report

July 06, 2012

As you may know, we recently published a big report about e-book lending at libraries. The main headline from the report is that 12% of e-book readers ages 16 and older have borrowed an e-book from the library in the past year. However, another striking finding is that a majority of Americans (including a majority of library card holders) do not know if their library offers e-books for check-out—though the ALA reports that about three-quarters of libraries offer e-book lending.

We’ll have some posts exploring different aspects of the report in the coming weeks, but you can also read the entire report online (or download the PDF, if you prefer). And if you want to jump to a specific section, here’s a brief outline of the findings:



Part 1: An introduction to the issues surrounding libraries and e-books – A brief background section on the current issues faced by libraries and publishers, as well as other players like e-book distributor OverDrive and online retailer Amazon.

Part 2: Where people discover and get their books – This part takes another look at how people find out about books and where they go to find them, including a special analysis of how library card holders’ patterns differ from other Americans.

Part 3: Library users – This part examines the demographics and reading habits of library card holders, as well as how different groups see the role of the local library in their lives.

Part 4: How people used the library in the past year – How different groups used the library in the past year for a variety of purposes, including research, book-borrowing, and accessing periodicals like newspapers and magazines.

Part 5: Libraries in transition – This qualitative section includes quotes from librarians and patrons about changes in library holdings and patrons’ book-borrowing habits, and the evolving roles of librarians. We also asked librarians about how their libraries introduced e-book lending, including their experiences with training staff and patrons.

Part 6: A closer look at e-book borrowing – Using both quantitative data and quotes from our online respondents, this section explores the e-book borrowing process and common issues that patrons and librarians encounter, as well as how the process could be improved in the future.

Part 7: Non-e-book borrowers – This section examines why people don’t borrow e-books from libraries (and finds that a majority of Americans do not know if their libraries even offer e-books). It also shows which groups of non-borrowers would be interested in library resources such as pre-loaded e-readers or classes on how to use e-readers and check out e-books.

Part 8: Final thoughts – Our final section takes a step back to look at larger trends in library services and patrons’ reading habits, and what patrons and librarians expect from the “library of the future.”


E-books aren’t just for e-readers: A deep dive into the data

April 20, 2012

One of my favorite findings in our recent e-reading report was the breakdown of how people read their e-books. While there is a (very understandable) tendency to associate e-books with dedicated e-reading devices, we found that among people who read e-books, just as many read their e-books on a desktop or laptop computer as on an e-book reader like a Kindle or Nook—and more people read e-books on their cell phones than on tablet computers.

Read More »

Do you borrow e-books from your local public library?

April 16, 2012

As you know, we are in the midst of a multi-year study of the changing role of public libraries in the digital age. For our next report, we’re supplementing our usual nationally representative phone surveys with non-scientific, non-representative online surveys. These surveys help us draw out deeper, richer stories about the experiences of library users that can be used to illuminate the findings of our nationally representative surveys. If you check out or download e-books from your local public library, please take the survey below and tell us about your experiences!

The survey will be confidential and we will not share your identity, although your answers may be quoted anonymously in the report. The survey should take about 15 minutes.

[Update: This survey is now closed.]

And thanks!


P.S. Not an e-book borrower? We will also be doing broader surveys of public library patrons in general, as well as people (including non-library-users) who own e-readers or tablet computers. If you would like to be notified of any of our future questionnaires, please sign up here.

Print books vs. e-books: Which is better for what

April 13, 2012

Our recent e-reading report has received a lot of attention over the past week, and one section in particular that seemed to spark conversation was our “print vs. e-books” showdown:

We asked people who read both print books and e-books in the past year which format they thought was better for a variety of situations. We found that people prefer e-books when they need a book quickly, when they want a wide selection, or when they want to read “on-the-go” while commuting or traveling. Print, meanwhile, is the preferred format for “social reading,” such as sharing books with others or reading with a child.

And when it comes to the time-honored tradition of reading in bed? The verdict was split: 45% say e-books are best here, while 43% prefer print.

Here are more links to interesting discussions we’ve noticed around the web:

What do you think? If you’re a “dual-format reader,” when does print win out over e-books (and vice versa?) How have e-books changed your reading habits—if at all? Hop over to our Facebook page and let us know!

A sneak peek at our research timeline

April 09, 2012

As you may know, Pew Internet received a $1.4 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to study the role of libraries in users’ lives and in their communities. So far, we’ve released reports chronicling the adoption of e-readers and tablet computers and the rise of e-reading — but we’re just getting started.

Over the course of the next two years, we’ll come out with a series of reports examining technology adoption and use in libraries, patrons’ expectations, the “library of the future,” and how libraries fit into people’s lives in all sorts of ways.

Our next report, for instance, is a look at the state of e-book borrowing in American libraries, and what sort of experiences people have when they want to check out digital content. This report will combine the quantitative results for our December 2011 nationally representative phone survey with longer responses and stories from a series of online surveys of both librarians and e-book borrowers.

How you can participate

While our phone surveys are random to ensure statistical accuracy, we are actively looking for e-book borrowers to volunteer to take our online surveys. So if you ever check out or download e-books from a public library — or if you’re a librarian at a library that has e-books available for check-out — please sign up.

Not an e-book borrower? We’d still love to hear from you. Some of our future online surveys will cover a lot of ground, so take a look to see which groups apply to you. Once you sign up (and click on the confirmation link that we send you), you’ll be notified whenever relevant online surveys are in the field.

Learn more

If you would like to learn more about where this research series is headed, an abbreviated version of our research plans is available below. A full version is also available in our “About” section here.

Read More »

Let us be your megaphone

April 02, 2012

Chances are, if you’re reading this post, you’re someone who loves storytelling as much as we do. And while we at Pew Internet primarily tell stories through data, we also rely heavily on qualitative research to help us better understand the larger trends we observe in our research. Sometimes a single comment to an open-ended question can generate a critically important insight or lead us to ask new questions that simply wouldn’t have occurred to us otherwise.

To that end, in addition to our nationally representative phone surveys, we will also be conducting a series of online surveys and interviews to learn more about library patrons’ and e-book users’ experiences navigating the changing role of technology in their lives. Over the next year, we will be sending out surveys to four groups:

If you fall into any of these groups and you are interested in being a part of our research, you can learn more here. As always, we’re extremely grateful for everyone who shares their time and experiences with us. Thank you. Without you, our work would not be possible!

Libraries get a room of their own

March 30, 2012

You may notice that this website looks and feels a bit different from the home site of pewinternet.org. As part of our multi-year study of the changing role of public libraries in the digital age, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we felt it was important to give this work its own “room,” so to speak. You will still be able to find all of these reports and presentations at our home site, but you’ll also have libraries.pewinternet.org as a one-stop shop for everything that Pew Internet does that relates to libraries.

Beyond our new Gates Foundation-supported initiative, you’ll see that this site also features an archive of relevant library-focused material that Pew Internet has produced in the past. Did you happen to miss Lee Rainie’s keynote address at the Internet Librarian conference last year? Well, we’ve got it here.

We’re also very interested to hear your feedback about the new site: What do you think works well? Where can we improve? What else could we add to this site to make it an even better resource for you?

Drop us an email and let us know what you think: webmaster@pewinternet.org

NextLibraries: What do Americans want from their libraries?

March 28, 2012

Laurie Putnam at Next Libraries has a great post up discussing the plans of our new research initiative to study libraries in the digital age:

The grant will allow researchers to concentrate on libraries in a way they never have before. “It’s enormously exciting to be doing something very focused on libraries and librarians because they are primary stakeholders of our work,” says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project. “I know from all the conversations I’ve had with librarians how interested they are to find out where they stand in the world, what services people expect of them, and where they might fit into the world of ebooks.”

The post also includes an overview of our research schedule and ways to participate in upcoming research. Check it out!

New Report: Tablet and e-book reader ownership nearly double over the holiday gift-giving period

January 23, 2012

Our latest report finds that the share of adults in the United States who own tablet computers nearly doubled from 10% to 19% between mid-December and early January. The same surge in growth also applied to e-book readers, which also jumped from 10% to 19% over the same time period. As a result, the number of Americans owning at least one of these digital reading devices jumped from 18% in December to 29% in January.

These findings are especially striking because they come after a period from mid-2011 into the autumn in which there was not much change in the ownership of tablets and e-book readers. However, as the holiday gift-giving season approached, the marketplace for both devices dramatically shifted. In the tablet world, Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Barnes and Noble’s Nook Tablet were introduced at considerably cheaper prices than other tablets. In the e-book reader world, some versions of the Kindle and Nook and other readers fell well below $100.

Read the full report at pewinternet.org