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Anthropology in Practice

Anthropology in Practice

Exploring the human condition.

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.

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

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