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Libraries and e-books

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Does your local library offer e-books for loan? It might. But if you aren’t sure, you aren’t alone: According to a report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 12% of e-book readers have actually borrowed an e-book from their local library. Why the low percentage given the popularity* of digital readers? The likely answer is that the service is relatively unknown:

“Approximately, 75% of US libraries lend e-books but 62% said they did not know if their library offered that service. Some 22% say they know that their library does lend out e-books, and 14% say they know their library does not lend out e-books.”

There are also issues with compatibility—not all e-books work across all devices. Titles may not be available and there may be long wait lists. These factors may contribute to the larger tendency to purchase e-books, but the nature of e-readers themselves and the environment of e-reading may also encourage different sorts of behaviors.

Let’s start with the last book you read: How did you find it? Of the readers surveyed, recommendations from family members, friends, or co-workers topped the list (64%), followed closely by recommendations from online sources (28%), and recommendations from bookstore staff (23%). Only 19% reported getting recommendations from libraries or library websites.

People’s reading choices, then, seem formed by input from a variety of sources. And the library is a repository for reading material, and less of an interactive space. But back to the last book you read, for just a minute—where did you get it?

Forty-eight percent of American book readers (in any format) purchased the last book they read. But book buying is certainly a privilege: The people most likely to have gotten their most recent book from the library were those earning $30,000 or less, and those specifically in limited income brackets such as teenagers and older adult. In addition, non-tech owners (people who don’t own tablets, e-readers, or cell phones, or have Internet access) were more likely to visit the library for books than tech owners.

E-book readers in general are more likely to get book recommendations from online sources, such as online bookstores and websites. These environments encourage immediate purchases, and tend to have a wider selection of materials available.

While online recommendations provide the benefit of aggregated comments, though they raise the question of how to vet those comments and weigh the raters. To this end, adoption of social bookshelf apps and the social integration of many consumer sites that allow users to share purchases and preferences, move recommendations from family members, friends, and co-workers to online spaces.

Personally, I’m a browser. I rely less on personal recommendation, and I tend to focus on authors and genres I enjoy. How—and where—are you getting your books?

*A report from Pew Internet indicated that tablet and e-reader ownership doubled following the 2011 holiday season, making them a “must have” gift for adults.

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jhorgan 7:09 am 07/30/2012

    Last month finally bought a Kindle, cheapest smallest one, $79 the size of a postcard, started downloading free stuff, Lovecraft (the Dread Cthulhu!), Poe, Dr. Jekyll. Ulysses, which I first read in college, digging more than ever. Love the e-book experience, more than I expected. I’ve got stacks of books people send me to review cluttering my office. Would it be better to get them on my Kindle? Maybe. Except, first, I mark books up when reading for professional reasons, and taking notes on an e-book is a pain. Second, I want to reserve my e-book for pleasure.

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  2. 2. Trekmyer 7:30 am 07/30/2012

    I am a reader like the writer of this article: I read certain genres and follow many authors.
    I have never used or wanted to use an e-book, it is (I think) too mechanical and I like the feel and comfort of holding a real book while I am reading.

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  3. 3. davidpwhelan 1:50 pm 07/30/2012

    If I’m reading non-fiction, I go almost entirely based on non-personal recommendations, picking up books mentioned in articles or other places. Tracking them down often means older material, so I borrow it from the library. Alternatively, I’ll buy a print copy but not – so far – an electronic one. Even though I’m fine with e-books, I tend to read non-fiction in print. If it’s fiction, I’ll browse a non-library catalog (like Amazon) but am just as often grabbing a free Kindle version for my Android phone since I tend towards classics or content in the public domain. I have tried using the ebooks provided by the two public libraries to which I have access but find them to rarely have the title that I’m looking for or, if they have it, it’s unavailable.

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  4. 4. 9:53 am 07/31/2012

    I have borrowed ebooks from my public library. I just browsed the ebook selection. It is still fairly limited, but it is heavily used: most of the titles are currently checked out and many have a waiting list. Because the current percentage of ebook library borrowers is small doesn’t mean that the percentage will remain small! Give libraries and ebooks a chance.

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  5. 5. uconnron 11:22 am 07/31/2012

    As a computer specialist, I predicted the advent of e-books 10 years. I also predicted major changes in the role most libraries will play in the future: they will become social centers for hosting municipal activities such as “Meet the author” or function as museums. Eventually e-books will predominate and the need for physical libraries will decline. Most book lending will occur via the internet.

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  6. 6. Walt129 7:33 pm 07/31/2012

    Since I have the read Kindle function on my PC I might occasionally borrow a book in that format from the library, if available – but primarily to see if I want one I can use by copying significant (to me) paragraphs for future use as reference in my writing. My Kindle experiences have resulted in failure to copy anything from such texts, so I have drifted away from at least those particular e-books from any source including sales.

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  7. 7. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 12:01 am 08/2/2012

    Hey everyone! Sorry I’ve been away for a few days, but thanks so much for chiming in and sharing your experiences with the group.

    jhorgan and Trekmyer, I was also surprised by my e-reader experience. It’s taken some getting used to, but it’s proven handy to have during my commute. Like you, however, I prefer taking notes by hand … and on rainy nights, I love curling up with a favorite paperbacks.

    david, I pick up books similarly to the way you do. Non-fiction tends to be guided by mentions or whispers that I’ve sort of heard about elsewhere. Fiction is largely on a whim–because it fits a genre, or an author I follow, or because something about the book itself appeals to me. I have not been successful with getting e-books from my local libraries, but I’ll also admit that I haven’t pursued it vigorously.

    aylesford, I hope I didn’t give the impression that I’m not optimistic! I definitely think we’re still in our infancy of adoption, and I think as usage becomes more widespread, things will change. I do prefer to own my books though, so I’m not sure how likely I’ll be to borrow e-books.

    uconnron, I agree that libraries will change, and one of the points in that report is that they already have begun to change! Librarians now need to be more tech savvy and be able to troubleshoot issues with electronic readers on some level. Expectations will certainly continue to shift with time

    Walt129, I use my Kindle in bursts … because at the end of the day, I sometimes need to hold the real thing :)

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  8. 8. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 12:11 am 08/2/2012

    Also, I had a reader email me to point out that while he purchases most of his books, he relies on libraries for research. And it’s true that when it comes time to get journal articles, I head to my electronic reserve … and I’ve started downloading them to my Kindle. It’s not a perfect experience, but it helps cut down on the paper I carry!

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  9. 9. gnarvaez 12:23 pm 08/2/2012

    For a few years now I have been reading most of journal articles in PDF or similar format. My first year of school I had a ridiculous amount of paper for the readings we had to do, something like 8 feet in lateral file space. From my second year I switched over to PDF’s and by the end of my program I had over 2200 articles and about 80 books (I was in grad school from 2003 to 2010… anthro Ph.D.s take a while, and we read a lot, but that’s not to say I’ve read all 2200 articles and books… but I know where they are and what they are about).
    I moved most of my collection over to an iPad a couple of years ago, but earlier this year I got a Kindle Touch. While it does not have the flexibility and speed of an iPad (which I still use for most of my academic reading), the Kindle has become my preferred device to read non-work related stuff. It allows me to partition the readings (also with the Kindle I only read, where as with the iPad and laptop I can do other stuff… instead of just reading). A drawback (or hidden benefit) of a Kindle and other similar devices (Nook, etc.) is that they are not easy to write up notes on (might be interesting if someone were to hack a keyboard to one… though not having bluetooth or master mode USB makes it unlikely).

    I would be interesting to know if people are using different eBook readers for different kinds of readings and activities.

    Also would like to know if university libraries are encouraging the use of eBook readers (or opposing it). While most have extensive online access to articles and books, these don’t seem to be easily transfered to eBook readers (except for PDFs, but many lack embedded text reducing their usefulness — i.e., no text searches).

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