The Pew Report on Reading: A [Digital] Library Perspective

By now, everyone in LibraryLand has seen the September 1 report and likely celebrated at least some.

It seems that reading may not, despite many greatly exaggerated reports, be on life support, attended in its last few minutes by quietly grieving holders of the MLIS, publishers begging miracle-working authors to try any means, except perhaps changes in DRM and book pricing (some things are too unholy to consider), to revive it.

Here's the survey. It is of course important for libraries to know societal trends. It brings some good news. In spite of having many other ways to be informed and entertained, Americans are still reading.  And since libraries might as well be called “Reading Is Us,” that’s good news.  Younger people are even more likely to read than others, it seems, so we may not be losing our core audience over time.  

If library print circulation is largely stagnant or even slightly declining--as seems to be the case in many libraries, after some decades of big increases--at least our circ trends reflect the whole culture staying about the same over the last few years in its reading habits. It's not great news.  But it isn't terrible.

Those surveyed perhaps most likely to use libraries are reading as much as ever and in some cases becoming even more format agnostic:  they will read in print, on phone, or on a tablet, depending on circumstances. Hooray!

But knowing more would help.

We pass over without comment the fact that people under 18 aren't even mentioned. Every survey has its limits. It wouldn't be fair to ask outside this one's parameters.

If 11% more people are "reading to research particular topics," perhaps we need to boost our collection of non-fiction. How are they reading to research? Is it print? Digital? Books? Some other length of monograph? Newspapers? Web postings? Blogs? What? Help! 

Library e-book and even more our digital audiobook use continues to rise, perhaps not for e-books at the amazing percentages we saw in 2011 – 2103, but at much higher rates than match this study and much higher than our print numbers. This growth continues in spite of the fact that, at least for many library e-book vendors, people often have to wait. Could it be that our users aren’t willing to pay the higher costs many e-book publishers now charge under agency pricing but are willing to borrow from us for "free"? Do we in libraries also benefit in the big trend away from consumers buying e-books from the major publishers and getting them instead from smaller publishers or even direct from authors at a fraction of the agency pricing?

The study also seems to ignore how different types of reading might be changing: for example, as noted by our friend the Digital Reader, paper romance and thriller sales (and, it seems in many libraries, circ stats too) are declining but reading in this format has soared on digital devices from library collections. Fantasy, SciFi, paranormal, and perhaps even mystery may follow this trend. Is the convenience of getting many titles quickly (and, in the case of Romance, not having to share those spicy book covers at check-out) revolutionizing part of the library business in ways not at all reflected in the survey?

 It's good to see that reading is not in decline but it isn't enough just to say "people love print" when so many other changes in our business are happening. Let's try to learn more, not just be glad people like print.

Perhaps some of these questions will be answered in the next Pew Survey on libraries. 

In the meantime, here’s one definite take away from the study that all libraries can support: since reading isn’t in dying, we in libraries should keep talking up our favorites, getting the word out to our users (and the media) on what’s worth a look. Let's have reading conversations with all ages. Reading isn’t on life support, but we need to help it stay vital. Print? E-book? Digital Audio? Graphic novel? It's good to know what will be in demand, bujt's let's be a sformat agnostic as our readers. "Reading," to quote Andrew Albanese, "is the product." Keep telling people about all the ways we get great content, and help people to find the books they like.