Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

How E-Books Have Changed Reading Habits

April 05, 2012

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project just released the first comprehensive examination of U.S. adult reading habits since e-books have come to prominence. Among its key findings are that 78 percent of adults read a book in the past year, and 14 percent of these readers borrowed their last book from our nation’s libraries. Additionally, one in five adults reported reading an e-book in the past year. American Library Association (ALA) President Molly Raphael responds to this vital new research below.

As the premier group dedicated to fostering lifelong learning, librarians will be among the most avid readers of this important report. Much of the report confirms trends to which we’ve been eyewitnesses: four times the number of people report reading e-books on a typical day now, compared with only two years ago; and the number of people that own e-reader devices or tablets nearly doubled between mid-December 2011 and January 2012.

In Cobb County, Georgia, this trend is reflected in a 31 percent jump in e-book circulations between November and December 2011. At the Alameda Free Public Library in California, the number of e-book check-outs doubled from August 2011 to January 2012. And OverDrive, the largest distributor of e-books to libraries, reports that library patrons checked out 35 million digital titles in 2011, up from 15 million circulations in 2010. More than two-thirds (67.2 percent) of public libraries offer access to e-books, up 12 percent from two years ago. 

The average reader of e-books has read more books in the past 12 months that those who read only in print.

There’s more to be done here, though, to bring a broader range of e-content to library patrons, which is a focus of ALA’s Digital Content and Libraries Working Group.

The research also suggests that more formats (print, audio and electronic options) are a boon for power readers. The average reader of e-books has read more books in the past 12 months that those who read only in print. And 30 percent of those who read e-content (including long-form digital content such as e-books, news articles, magazines and journals) now spend more time reading—and this figure is even higher for people who own e-readers and tablets.

Of great concern, though, are findings that there is a significant gap in those who have read an e-book in the last year versus those who did not, based on level of education and income (34 percent of those who read an e-book had some college education, compared to 19 percent of high school graduates or less education; and 38 percent of those with household incomes greater than $75,000 had read an e-book, compared with 20 percent of those with incomes less than $30,000), and that fewer people overall are reading books. The percentage of adults who said they had NOT read a book in the last year or did not answer the question is 22 percent – which is greater than the percentage of adults who read an e-book. This compares to past Gallup surveys about reading in which 17 percent of adults did not answer the question or reported not reading in the past year in 2005, or 12 percent who reported this was the case in 1978, when the first Gallup survey took place.

This research effort, underwritten by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is incredibly valuable for librarians and everyone who cares about the state of reading in this country. Strong reading motivation and abilities are critical to maintaining America’s competitive position in the global economy. As the digital revolution continues to unfold, authoritative data and research are necessary for effective decision making and formulating public policy. ALA commends the Pew Internet Project and the Gates Foundation on their leadership.

Please read the entire statement at ALA.

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