We were interested to know about how the rise of e-books has affected people’s library use and experiences, so we asked about ownership of library cards. Our national survey showed that 58% of Americans ages 16 and older said they had a library card. And it turns out that library card ownership bounces around by different age groups.

We also asked respondents about ways they have used their local public library in the past year, including checking out books, getting research assistance, reading newspapers and magazines, and accessing databases:

  • 37% of Americans under age 30 (and 35% of all Americans) used their library in the past year to borrow print books.
  • 28% of those under age 30 (and 20% of all Americans) received research help from a librarian in the past year.
  • 27% of those under age 30 (and 25% of all Americans) used their library to access historical documents or archives or genealogical records.
  • 24% of those under age 30 (and 22% of all Americans) used their library to access specialized databases such as legal or public records.
  • 16% of those under age 30 (and 14% of all Americans) used their library to access or borrow magazines or journals.
  • 12% of those under age 30 (and 14% of all Americans) used their library to access or borrow newspapers or news articles.
  • 3% of those under age 30 (and 4% of all Americans) used their library in the past year to borrow audiobooks.
  • 2% of those under age 30 (and 2% of all Americans) used their library in the past year to borrow e-books.

Overall, 60% of Americans under age 30 (and 56% of all Americans ages 16 and older) said that they had used a public library at least once in the past year for one of the activities we queried. High schoolers (ages 16-17) were by far the most likely cohort to have used the library for at least one of these purposes in the previous year.

When we examined the data by age group, several trends stood out. Those 65 and older are the least likely to have used a library in the past 12 months, while high schoolers are by far the most likely ages group to have visited a library, especially for research purposes.

It is important to note that we asked no questions about technology use at libraries because that was outside the scope of this current part of our research. Other studies by Pew Internet and others have documented that library patrons are often eager users of computers and internet connections at local libraries.13 Thus, it is likely that a number of additional Americans use their libraries for access to technology and the overall number of “library users” is greater than 56%.

Indeed, we heard repeatedly from librarians in one of our online panels that technology use and technology support is a major aspect of their work with patrons. “It seems that most people who actually contact a librarian are looking for help navigating the site and downloading e-books,” one librarian told us. Another wrote, “We spend a significant part of our day explaining how to get library books onto e-book readers.” Future surveys in the next stage of our libraries research will explore technology services at libraries in more detail.14

When it comes to getting research help from a librarian or borrowing print books, the youngest patrons are by far the most likely age group to avail themselves of these resources. High schoolers, 43% have gotten research help from a librarian in the past year, compared with 20% of all respondents. Most of the high schoolers who received research assistance had done so five times or less in the past year.

When we asked about accessing specialized databases or historical records, or accessing or borrowing newspapers or news articles, we found few (if any) significant differences in use by age—although respondents under age 30 are more likely to have accessed or borrowed magazines or journals at a public library in the past 12 months.

Among print readers, 65% of high schoolers had checked out a print book from a public library in the past year (compared with 48% of all respondents), with roughly half of these borrowers having done so one to five times. Meanwhile, among audiobook listeners, the youngest respondents were generally less likely than older adults to have checked out audiobooks from a library. Among e-book readers, there were no differences among age groups for checking out e-books.

How patrons’ library habits are changing

Many of our online panelists said that they used their library’s website much more often since they started borrowing e-books, but were split on how their in-person visits to the library’s physical branch have been affected.

A high school-aged rural respondent, for instance, wrote that since she started borrowing e-books, “I tend to go to the physical branch less often because if I can borrow a book in digital format I can start reading it faster.” Another panelist wrote that while he preferred borrowing e-books to print books, he would visit the library when that was not possible: “I go to the library branch to search for books that I can’t get online, and I also go there to do some reading and discover any new books that the library has gotten in.”

Not everyone has seen a change in their reading habits. “Nothing has changed so far. Even if I can borrow e-books from home I would still like to go and visit the library,” a woman in her late twenties told us. “There are many services and events provided by the library that I would like to be a part of.”

Another college-aged respondent wrote that she used her e-reader to borrow e-books, but not for other library activities: “I don’t use my Kindle Fire for research or to access any databases on the Internet. I use my library’s website to get into their databases, like LearningExpress and Job & Career Builder. I usually go through my library’s website to access their catalog and look for e-book titles.”

Finally, others wrote that borrowing e-books inspired them to use their library more for other services. “I actually go to the library more than I did before I had my e-reader,” a respondent in her late twenties wrote. “I find myself engaged by the ability to download e-books and more excited to see what’s new in the branch.” Added another: “I pretty much got my Kindle only because the library started offering e-books to check out. I still love books in print and will pick a print book over an e-book if I have the option . . . I would say I go to the library only slightly less than I used to.”

A college-aged panelist from a large city described her relatively fluid reading habits this way:

“I go to the library just as much as I used to and read just as much printed word as before. My e-reader is a last-resort, back-up deal for me. I need an electronic book while I’m flying because I love to read but a printed book in a plane makes me sick. Another example is that I am moving this week, and have been packing up my personal books and returning my library books, but I still want something to read. In that case, an e-book is invaluable. I’m in the middle of Bleak House by Charles Dickens right now, but as soon as I move to new place I’m going to pick up a print copy from the nearest library.”

Importance of the library

We also asked a broader question of respondents about how important, if at all, the library was to them and their families. In general, almost seven in ten Americans (69%) say that public libraries are important to them and their family: 38% of Americans ages 16 and older say that the public library is “very important,” and 31% say it is “somewhat important.” Some 17% say it is “not too important,” while 13% say it is “not important at all.”

Even though they are the highest-using library cohort, high schoolers are least likely to say that the library is important to them and their family. While a majority of respondents in all age groups say that the public library is at least somewhat important to them and their family, just 45% of high schoolers say that the library is not important or “not too important”.

A closer look at e-book borrowing

Checking out e-books

The patrons who responded to our online questionnaire generally learned about e-book lending at their library either at their library’s physical branch or through direct online communication from the library.

Many seem to have heard about e-book borrowing from the library’s website—especially patrons who were already using the library’s website regularly to reserve books. “I saw it on the library’s website. If you sign up with your email, the library regularly sends out updates and news which also includes information about e-books and other online services,” a respondent in her late twenties said. “I think my library does a great job communicating information to its patrons.”

Still others simply noticed the option for e-books in online catalogues by chance. “I think I found out only because I regularly visit my library’s website to reserve books and search the catalog. I don’t think I ever saw it advertised anywhere,” another panelist in her late twenties wrote. “Maybe they could send out a mailer to let people know?”

“I was exploring the library webpage and found a link to NetLibrary. No one told me it was there, in fact, some staff seemed surprised when I showed it to them,” one respondent said. “Our library obviously did not do a very good job of communicating e-books to the customers before. They seem to only really talk about it to people who tell them they have a Nook or Kindle and forget that almost everyone has a phone these days.”

Others learned of the program through word-of-mouth or local newspaper ads. “A friend told me about it,” a college-aged respondent said. “A newsletter with new releases and upcoming titles would be beneficial.”

Finally, many had been unaware of whether or not their library offered e-books, but started seeking out information on e-book borrowing once they had purchased an e-reader (or were thinking of getting one). “When we thought about purchasing an e-reader, we researched [on the library’s website] to see if they supported e-readers,” a panelist in his late twenties said. A college-aged respondent didn’t find out about e-book borrowing until he went to purchase his device. “The salesperson at Barnes and Noble (where I bought my e-reader) told me about the service,” he said.

Most of our online panelists said that e-books at their library could be checked out for two or three weeks on average, and they usually felt this check-out period was appropriate:

  • “At our digital library, the checkout period is about the same as it normally is (14 days). I feel this is just about right,” a college-aged respondent wrote. “Most of the time I don’t require more than 14 days to read an average book, and if I do, I shouldn’t be reading it at all because clearly it isn’t interesting to me.”
  • “It’s three weeks, I think, with no renewal,” a panelist in his late twenties said, adding that he found this period “a bit too short.”
  • “I have the option for a seven, 14 or 21-day lending period for each title,” another panelist in her late twenties wrote. “I feel this is fair given that print books are also lent at a three-week checkout period (sometimes shorter for newer books).”
  • One college-aged respondent had his own method for dealing with check-out periods: “I give myself a week to read a book, so I don’t forget about it and get hit with fines. Fines are no longer an issue with e-books, but it’s a habit.”

Patron experiences borrowing e-books

As e-book demand has increased in recent years with the introduction of dedicated e-book readers, public libraries’ electronic holdings have not always kept pace. The size and scope of each library’s e-book collections are determined not only by the resources and priorities of that library, but also by availability of many titles. Many publishers, concerned about the potential of e-book piracy and loss of sales, do not sell e-books to libraries at all; others impose restrictions or higher prices for in-demand titles. (More information is available here.15)

In our national survey, the 12% of all e-book readers ages 16 and older who borrow e-books from libraries are generally positive about the selection they are offered. Among those who borrowed e-books from a public library in 2011, almost two-thirds say the selection at their library is “good” (32%), “very good” (18%), or “excellent” (16%). Some 23% say the selection is only “fair,” and 4% say it is “poor.”

We also asked those who borrowed e-books whether they had experienced several of the difficulties that could be associated with such borrowing, and found that:

  • 56% of e-book borrowers said that at one point or another they had tried to borrow a particular book and found that the library did not carry it.
  • 52% of e-book borrowers said that at one point or another they discovered there was a waiting list to borrow the book.
  • 18% of e-book borrowers said that at one point or another they found that the e-book they were interested in was not compatible with the e-reading device they were using.

Among our online panelists, respondents of all ages wished for more e-book titles and shorter waiting lists for those that were available. One college-aged panelist had her own trick for dealing with her library’s e-book selection: “What works best is enjoying weird novels. There are no copies of the latest James Patterson novel. However, if you want to read his third novel, you might be able to find it. Likewise, many classics are perpetually available.”

Overall, our online panelists found their libraries’ e-book check-out process to be relatively painless, although that is not to say they didn’t have suggestions for improvement. “The app is very easy to use and hassle free,” a college-aged panelist wrote. “I like that I can read on my phone or iPad, and my page will sync across devices automatically.” Another agreed: “I have mastered the advanced search function, so it is quick and easy to find books. The checkout process is laborious if I am not logged in, so I try to log in when I go looking for books so it is only a few clicks to checkout.”

Another college-aged respondent also had issues with the log-in process—and the service in general. “[The system] doesn’t have any recommendations just what’s popular, the mobile version is clunky and hard to navigate,” he said. “[It] never stays logged in on a device!”

Many were also frustrated with the multiple log-in screens they are required to navigate when checking out e-books. “It would really be nice if we could check out and download in a few steps, rather than 6+ steps,” a college-aged respondent suggested. “It’s confusing for all the different devices and it would be nice if the process was the same for a Kindle, Nook, iPad, laptop, etc.”

“Automatically checking out books when they become available would be nice,” a respondent in her late twenties suggested. “I just lost a book I’d been waiting for weeks because I was travelling and could not download it.”

And while our young online panelists generally felt that it was easy enough to search for e-books on their libraries’ systems, browsing was another matter:

  • “Make it easier to browse books. Maybe provide a paragraph on what the book is about, and a link to the reading sample (if there is one). Also maybe a blurb that says ‘this author is best known for…’” a college-aged panelist suggested, adding: “Those would be nice features, but really if you would just make the e-book browse as functional as the digital card catalog, that would be very, very nice.”
  • “Try to make a list of the new e-books that become available, especially for new releases,” a suburban college-aged respondent wrote.
  • Another panelist was more succinct: “Just keep adding books. The better the selection, the more people will use it.”

Others just wanted to be able to access the e-books that are currently available. “Standards would make life easier,” a college-aged respondent told us. He suggested either the creation of a new e-book standard or the ability for devices to read more formats, since “there is not one device that is compatible with all of OverDrive’s formats.”

Young respondents with multiple gadgets said they often encountered compatibilities issues:

  • An e-book borrower in her late twenties said, “Many books are not available for Apple products and the OverDrive app will not turn up those books in a search. I am often confused about what is available and need to search on the computer to find what I want first.”
  • Another told us that “[having] multiple formats is very frustrating for audiobooks. I own a Mac, which means that I cannot download WMA audiobooks to my computer (even though my device could play it if it could be transferred onto it.)”