Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The New Pew Data on E-Readers Show How Digital Divides Persist

January 23, 2012

The Pew Research Center has just issued a report indicating that “tablet and e-book reader ownership nearly doubled over the holiday gift-giving period” across the United States.  Between mid-December and early January, the number of adults with e-readers went from 10 percent to 19 percent. Tablet ownership grew from 10 percent to 19 percent as well. 

Now almost one-third of adults in the U.S. own at least one mobile reading device. 

Even before the holiday surge in gadget ownerships, libraries were seeing strong demand for e-books. Computerworld indicated that “the demand for e-books at some major public libraries more than doubled so far in December and January compared to a year ago.”

This amazing rate of change presents huge opportunities in an increasingly digitized society where information access plays a critical role in building knowledge and skills, in addition to accessing economic, social, and cultural opportunities.

However, it also presents a challenge—threatening to exacerbate the digital divide that is already perpetuated across the U.S. While 36 percent of people from families with household incomes greater than $75,000 have a mobile reading device, this figure drops to only 8 percent of those from low-income households.

Fifteen years ago when we launched our work with public libraries, we invested in computers, training, and access. We felt that providing access to technology and information services at our nation’s public libraries was the best way to ensure that everyone had the information needed for opportunities to live healthy and productive lives.

Now 99.9 percent of our nation’s public libraries do offer free public access to computers and the internet, with nearly 1 in 3 adults using the library annually for this access.

However, in an increasingly mobile and information-hungry society, this is not enough.

Our libraries need to continue to keep up with the staggering pace of change in the way people are consuming information. Many are now offering information services “to go” with remote access to specialized databases and downloadable e-books, but it is hard to keep up with consumer demands.

Electronic periodicals and databases are often purchased by regional consortia or state library agencies—agencies that are facing severe budget pressures.

While many libraries are increasing their investment in e-Content, constraints remain. Some publishers refuse to sell e-Content to public libraries, and others include restrictions that challenge community access business models. 

At the foundation, we continue to invest in libraries—both in the U.S. and around the world—as we believe they continue to occupy a unique role in social and economic development, due to their provision of free, unfettered access to information, provided in a supportive environment with help from information professionals.

It is fundamental that we support libraries in a way that advances in mobile technology present an opportunity, rather than a challenge in our struggle to help bridge the digital divide.

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