Today the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project announced that tablet and e-book reader ownership nearly doubled over the holidays. Overall, 29 percent of U.S. adults now own at least one of these devices. This is the first report in a series funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with an advisory group of library representatives — on which I serve on behalf of the American Library Association.
While this first report does not reference libraries directly, it certainly has implications that come as no surprise to our members. Of course libraries have experienced the post-holiday surge of new tablet and e-reader users seeking help using these devices and looking to check out e-books much as they have checked out billions of other library items in the past year. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, these new tablet and e-reader owners will not be able to find the same depth of collections on their new devices as they’ve enjoyed in the stacks. Many of the largest publishers limit or do not allow library lending of e-books, an issue top of mind for the new Digital Content and Libraries Working Group.
In addition to the content divide that currently exists for those seeking e-books through their libraries, the Pew report also surfaces a new “device divide.” While 36 percent of people from families with annual incomes greater than $75,000 have a mobile reading device, only 8 percent of those with incomes below $30,000 report this is the case. In our effort to create and support a nation of readers and lifelong learners, these divides pose significant challenges to our values and ability to meet community needs. They demand our continued vigilance and advocacy, as well as our creativity in developing new sustainable models for connecting our communities.
Pew plans to dig deeper into library experiences with e-books in the coming year. There will be an online survey of library staff asking about their experiences with e-books, e-book readers, and publishers of e-books, as well as a survey of library patrons asking about their experiences of accessing/trying to access e-books at their libraries. Together, this phase of the research project will explore reader expectations for access to digital content and devices and the challenges and opportunities they bring to public libraries. In subsequent years, the project will investigate community priorities for library services and will describe use patterns and outcomes for library patrons and non-users.
Larra Clark, Director, Program on Networks
ALA Office for Information Technology Policy