The emergence of digital content has disrupted industries and institutions that have enjoyed relatively stable practices, policies, and businesses for decades. News organizations, record companies, broadcast and movie producers, and book publishers have all been dramatically affected by the change.

So have libraries. Interest in e-books took off in late 2006 with the release of Sony Readers, and accelerated after Amazon’s Kindle was unveiled a year later. And this public interest prompted many libraries to offer e-books to borrow, and this patrons’ interest in e-books has only grown over time.

For instance, the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library system found several months ago that “circulation of the system’s 10,346 electronic volumes is skyrocketing—at the same time that circulation of traditional materials has been remaining steady or dropping slightly,” according to an article in The Buffalo News. “In a four-day period after Christmas,” the article reports, “library cardholders downloaded 3,028 library-owned electronic titles onto devices including home computers, [cell phones] and digital readers such as NOOKs and Kindles.”2

These changes are systemic. There are over 16,600 library buildings in the nation’s 9,000 public library systems in the United States, according to the American Libraries Association,3 and some 76% of them now offer e-books for patrons to borrow—up from 67% last year.4 Though overall use of e-books is still relatively low compared to print books and other types of digital content, libraries across the country have seen significant growth in patron demand for e-book titles, especially new releases and bestsellers.

OverDrive, a global distributor of digital content to library patrons, reported that in 20115:

  • Its library website traffic more than doubled to 1.6 billion page views and visitor sessions also doubled to nearly 100 million.
  • Mobile device use increased to 22% of all checkouts. During the year, the OverDrive Media Console (a free e-book and audiobook app) was installed on 5 million devices, up 84% during the year and making the total install base 11 million users.
  • 35 million digital titles were checked out of libraries in 2011, with 17 million holds on e-books that people were waiting for.

The company also reported in March 2012 that more than 5 million visitors viewed 146 million pages in 12.6 million visits to the firm’s hosted digital catalog.6 On average, e-book catalogs hosted more than 408,000 visits each day. Visitors viewed 11.6 pages and browsed the site for 9 minutes 34 seconds on average. The firm also reported that e-book browsing is an evening activity: Visitors are most active from 8-9 p.m. in their respective regions, followed by 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.

According to OverDrive, about 60% of those accessing the collection browsed public library e-book collections to discover new content, rather than searching for a specific title. Among those browsers, romance was the most popular genre, followed by all fiction, mystery and suspense, historical fiction, and science fiction and fantasy.

Libraries are sometimes hard-pressed to keep up with this demand. Extremely long waiting lists for popular books are common. In Fairfax County in suburban Washington, D.C., for instance, “officials more than doubled the inventory of e-book copies from 2010 to 2011, to more than 10,000, but demand for the books tripled in that time,” according to The Washington Post. “Now the average wait time [for an e-book] is three weeks.” On a typical day in early December 2011, about 80% to 85% of the system’s e-books are checked out, Elizabeth Rhodes, the collection services coordinator for the Fairfax library system, was quoted as saying. But after the holidays when the number of e-reader owners and tablet computer owners exploded, 98% of the collections were spoken for.7

More change is inevitable. There are several major efforts underway to digitize books, especially older, out-of-print, non-copyright protected books, including at Google, the Internet Archive, and Harvard University. And a recent survey of 411 publishers found that 63% plan to publish a digital book in 2012, and 64% said they were primarily interested in publishing non-fiction and technical digital content–a sign that publishers see a host of business and educational opportunities for the format and devices that can read e-material.8

The strained relationship between libraries and publishers

These changes have brought significant tension to the relationship between libraries and major publishers. Many publishers are worried about the effect that unlimited library lending of e-books will have on sales of digital titles and about piracy of digital material. In an open letter to librarians explaining its switch to limit the number of check-outs a library can offer on an e-book, HarperCollins said that its previous policy of “selling e-books to libraries in perpetuity, if left unchanged, would undermine the emerging e-book eco-system, hurt the growing e-book channel, place additional pressure on physical bookstores, and in the end lead to a decrease in book sales and royalties paid to authors.9 Similarly, Simon & Schuster’s executive vice president and chief digital officer Elinor Hirschhorn says that the company does not make its e-books available to libraries at all because “[w]e’re concerned that authors and publishers are made whole by library e-lending and that they aren’t losing sales that they might have made in another channel.”10

Meanwhile, libraries and their allies argue that library lending of digital works introduces those works to a wider audience and ultimately increases the demand for them. An August 2011 survey of 2,42111 adults by Library Journal found “that over 50% of all library users report purchasing books by an author they were introduced to in the library,” according to Rebecca Miller, Library Journal’s executive editor. Miller maintained that the findings “[debunk] the myth that when a library buys a book the publisher loses future sales. Instead, it confirms that the public library does not only incubate and support literacy, as is well understood in our culture, but it is an active partner with the publishing industry in building the book market, not to mention the burgeoning e-book market.12

The current state of play between libraries and publishers

At the moment, two of the “big six” publishers, Simon & Schuster and MacMillan, do not sell e-books to libraries at all or allow any digital library lending of their titles. A third and a fourth, Hachette13 and Penguin14, do not generally sell to libraries but are embarking on pilot programs to test models for e-book borrowing. A fifth publisher, HarperCollins, limits library lending to 26 check-outs per e-book, after which libraries may repurchase the title to continue lending it.15 The firm recently ended its relationship with OverDrive and is testing a new lending system with the 3M company.16  And the sixth major publisher, Random House, places no restrictions on its digital titles.17 At the same time, Random House recently raised its prices for e-book sales to libraries so that the cost for some titles as much as tripled. For instance, to purchase a newer title that is available in print as a hardcover will now cost a library anywhere from $65-$85, while titles available as paperbacks will generally be in the $25-$50 range.18

In general, publishers’ e-book lending restrictions often attempt to mirror the logistics of print lending—for instance, only allowing an e-book to be lent out to one patron at a time through a “one book, one user” arrangement. According to a November 2010  survey from Library Journal and School Library Journal, “one book/one user” was the standard use license for about four in ten of responding public libraries; about one in ten had unlimited access, and another four in ten had both.19

A central issue in these debates is whether libraries own their e-book titles as they do print titles, or if they merely lease access to them as they would subscription to an external digital database. Jo Budler, the state librarian of Kansas, recently ended her state’s libraries’ contract with OverDrive over this issue. According to Library Journal, Budler refused to renew the libraries’ contract with OverDrive when the distribution service attempted not only to significantly raise fees, but also to rewrite the terms of the contract in such a way that would prevent the libraries from ever transferring their holdings to a different provider.20 The State Library of Kansas then decided to transfer the libraries’ existing digital content to a new e-book lending service from technology company 3M, although Budler said that they first had to secure individual publishers’ permission to transfer the titles. (The libraries were able to transfer about two-thirds of their content.21

Similarly, the Douglas County Libraries in Colorado have made agreements with publishers “that will allow the library to purchase outright and manage the digital rights for e-books, furthering the library’s effort to replicate the traditional print purchasing model for electronic content.”22

The rise of Amazon

Prior to 2011, e-book borrowers were able to check out several formats of e-books from their local libraries. The formats available were compatible with devices such as Barnes & Noble’s NOOK, the Sony Reader, and the Kobo reader, but not Amazon’s Kindle.23 In April 2011, however, Amazon announced that it was partnering with OverDrive to allow library patrons to check out Kindle books. Kindle Library Lending, which became available September 21, 2011, allows library patrons who own Kindles to borrow Kindle books from over 11,000 public and school libraries in the United States. It also allows borrowers to make notes in their copy of the e-book and to highlight certain passages; these markups are visible only to that user, not other library patrons or Amazon user.24 The service is only available to libraries, schools, and colleges in the U.S.25

With Kindle Library Lending, any title the library owns that is available via OverDrive can now be downloaded by patrons who own Kindles, or who have devices running the Kindle app, such as Android devices; iPads, iPod touches, and iPhones; desktop computers, including Macs and PCs; BlackBerry devices; or Windows Phones. The library patron is technically not downloading the library’s copy of that e-book, but a copy directly from Amazon that corresponds to the library’s title—although the title will still be “unavailable” to other patrons when it is checked out to a Kindle. This means that libraries do not need to convert any files from ePub or other formats in order to have those titles available via Kindle.

As a result, one controversy surrounding Kindle Library Lending is that library patrons who choose to download a Kindle e-book are redirected to Amazon’s website, where they must log in with an Amazon account (as opposed to completing the entire process within their library’s system). This has raised questions of privacy, as Amazon is able to track library patrons’ borrowing habits in a way that many librarians are uncomfortable with.26

Amazon itself has declined to provide exact figures as to its number of overall customers, number of Amazon Prime members, or number of Kindles sold. A recent press release said only that in December 2011, “customers purchased well over 1 million Kindle devices per week.27

About this research

This report explores the world of e-books and libraries, where libraries fit into these book-consumption patterns of Americans, when people choose to borrow their books and when they choose to buy books. It examines the potential frustrations e-book borrowers can encounter when checking out digital titles, such as long wait lists and compatibility issues. Finally, it looks at non-e-book-borrower interest in various library services, such as preloaded e-readers or instruction on downloading e-books.

To understand the place e-reading, e-books, and libraries have in Americans’ evolving reading habits, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given the Pew Internet Project a grant to study this shifting digital terrain. Libraries have traditionally played a key role in the civic and social life of their communities, and this work is aimed at understanding the way that changes in consumer behavior and library offerings might affect that unique relationship between libraries and communities.

This report is part of the first phase of that Gates Foundation-funded research.  Subsequent reports will cover how people in different kinds of communities (urban, suburban, and rural) compare in their reading habits and how teens and young adults are navigating this environment. Further down the line, our research will focus on the changing landscape of library services.

Quantitative data

The Pew Internet Project conducted several surveys to complete the work reported here. All quantitative findings in this report, including all specific numbers and statistics about various groups, come from a series of nationally-representative phone surveys. The first was a nationally-representative phone survey of 2,986 people ages 16 and older between November 16 and December 21, 2011. The sample was conducted 50% on landline phones and 50% on cell phones and in English and in Spanish. In addition, the survey included an oversample of 300 additional tablet computer owners, 317 e-reader owners, and 119 people who own both devices. The overall survey has a margin of error of ± 2 percentage points.

Beyond our December 2011 telephone survey, we asked a modest number of questions about tablets and e-readers in two telephone surveys conducted in January on an “omnibus” survey. These surveys involved 2,008 adults (age 18+) and were fielded between January 5-8 and January 12-15. Those surveys were conducted on landline and cell phones and were administered in English. We fielded them to determine if the level of ownership of e-readers and tablets had changed during the holiday gift giving season–and in fact it had. We reported that the level of ownership of both devices had nearly doubled in a month–from 10% ownership for each device in December to 19% in January.28 The margin of error for the combined omnibus survey data is ± 2.4 percentage points.

Finally, we asked questions about book reading and ownership of tablets and e-books in a survey fielded from January 20-February 19, 2012. In all, 2,253 adults (age 18+) were interviewed on landline and cell phone and in English and Spanish. The margin of error for the entire sample is ± 2 percentage points.

In general, all data cited in this report are from the November/December survey unless we specifically cite the subsequent surveys.

Qualitative material

The qualitative material in this report, including the extended quotes from individuals regarding e-books and library use, comes from two sets of online interviews that were conducted in May 2012. The first group of interviews was of library patrons who have borrowed an e-book from the library. Some 6,573 people answered at least some of the questions on the patron canvassing, and 4,396 completed the questionnaire. The second group of interviews was of librarians themselves. Some 2,256 library staff members answered at least some of the questions on the canvassing of librarians, and 1,180 completed the questionnaire.  Both sets of online interviews were opt-in canvassings meant to draw out comments from patrons and librarians, and they are not representative of the general population or even library users. As a result, no statistics or specific data points from either online questionnaire are cited in this report.

Throughout this report we quote from individual patrons’ answers about their experiences checking out e-books and their reactions to this relatively new service being offered by libraries. The majority of our patron respondents are female, and about half were in their forties or older. Their most common community type was “a small city or suburb,” followed by “a large metropolitan area or big city.”

Among the library staff who completed questionnaires, a strong majority were female. They were generally ages 25-64. The most common position title was “librarian,” followed by “director” or “chief officer.” The most common community type for their library was a small city or suburb, followed by a large metropolitan area or big city. About half of the libraries had 50,000 or fewer patrons.