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—with a particular focus on the habits and patterns of younger Americans. 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. Our next phase of research will focus on the changing landscape of library services.

Age group definitions

For the purposes of this report, we define younger Americans as those ages 16-29, although we will use several different frameworks for this in-depth analysis. At times we will compare all those ages 16-29 to all older adults (ages 30 and older). When more fine-grained analysis reveals important differences, we will divide younger readers into three distinct groups: high-schoolers (ages 16 and 17); college-aged adults (ages 18-24) who are starting their post-secondary life; and adults in their late twenties (ages 25-29) who are entering jobs and careers. “Older adults” will often be divided into our standard age groups: ages 30-49, 50-64, and 65 and older.

Quantitative data from the national survey

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 ages 18 and older, 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. 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 ages 18 and older 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 from the online panel

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.