This report is part of a series exploring the rising e-book environment and its impact on the general reading habits of Americans, as well as its impact on public libraries. To understand the place e-reading, e-books, and libraries have in Americans’ evolving reading habits, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded the Pew Internet Project a three-year grant. Libraries have traditionally played a key role in the civic and social life of their communities, and this work is aimed at exploring the ways that changes in consumer behavior and library offerings might affect that unique relationship between libraries and communities.

This report is the fourth in a series of Gates Foundation-funded releases. The first report,4 issued in April 2012, detailed the general reading habits of the U.S. adult population and how it has shifted since the advent of e-book technology. The second report,5 issued in June 2012, focused on the intersection of e-books and libraries, where libraries fit into the new book-consumption patterns of Americans, when people choose to borrow or buy books, and when they prefer digital content over print content and vice versa.  The third report, issued in October of 2012 examined the reading habits and library use of younger adults ages 16 to 29.6

The current report builds on the first two, in that it explores the general reading habits and e-reading habits of Americans, yet it does so through the lens of different community types.  Its focus is how people living in urban, suburban, and rural communities compare with one another in their reading patterns, interest in e-reading, and library use habits.  Specifically, this report takes a closer look across communities at similarities and differences in how much people read, what they read, how they read and how they use and value their local public library.

An examination of differences in the demographic makeup and electronic ownership profile of these different communities provides an important framework and context for the reading and e-reading differences reported here.

Community descriptions — demographic profile

Overall, in the main survey analyzed here, about a third (31%) of the respondents live in an urban setting, nearly half (48%) reside in the suburbs of a large city, and 16% live in rural areas.7 Significant demographic differences across the populations of these different community types, as well as attitudinal and behavioral differences, impact residents’ reading habits and attitudes.  Statistical modeling shows that in most cases, the key demographics of age, income, and educational attainment are most strongly related to reading habits and behaviors, and these are precisely the variables by which urban, suburban, and rural communities generally differ.  Thus, the demographic makeup of different community types is noted below and should provide a context for interpreting the results. The Pew Internet findings are consistent with community demographic attributes that are issued by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The community designations that form the basis of this report are based on the location of the telephone number in a community of a specific size.  For landline numbers in the sample, urban/suburban/rural designations based on Office of Management and Budget (OMB) definitions are appended to each number in the sample by the survey sample vendor.  For cell phone numbers, respondents are asked the zip code in which they live and then those cell phone respondents are matched to known community type designations based on landlines in the same zip code.  For about 5% of the sample, almost exclusively cell phone respondents, community type cannot be determined because the zip code provided cannot be matched to existing community type designations.

Demographically, these community types differ in terms of the age, educational attainment, household income, and the race/ethnic status of their residents.  Specifically, compared to suburban and rural residents, those living in urban areas tend to be younger and minority — they are the group most likely to be under age 30 and the most likely to be black or Hispanic.  They are also most likely to be unemployed or a student and to report lower household income.  Urban residents are the least likely of the three community types to be married.

In contrast, suburban residents tend to be middle-aged, have higher income than residents of other types of communities, and employed full time.

Rural residents are older than those living in other types of communities (rural residents are particularly likely to be ages 50 to 64).  They are also the most likely to report being retired or disabled, and to have an overall educational attainment of a high school diploma or less. Rural communities are also disproportionately white compared with other community types.

Internet use and gadget ownership profile

In addition to demographic variation, rural, suburban, and urban residents differ in terms of their ownership of electronic gadgets, which may be partly a reflection of the demographic profiles noted above.

Rural residents (who tend to be older and somewhat less educated than residents of other types of communities) are least likely to use the internet or email or to have a cell phone, and they are most likely to take most of their calls on a landline phone. This might partly stem from the fact that some remote rural areas have not had access to wired broadband, so it is not available to residents even if they want it. The most recent Federal Communications report on this found that 14.5 million rural Americans live in areas where they do not have access to wired broadband.8

Suburban residents, on the other hand, are the most likely to have a laptop or desktop computer.

Ownership of e-reading devices across community types also differs: rural residents are less likely than their urban or suburban counterparts to have a tablet computer, but there is no difference across community types in ownership of a handheld e-reading device such as a Kindle or Nook.  Rural residents are most likely to indicate they own neither type of device — more than three-quarters say they do not have an e-reader or tablet computer compared with slightly more than two-thirds of suburban and urban residents.9