December 10, 2023

Ebook Collections Surging: New Data Available from LJ, SLJ Annual Usage Reports


Now in their third year, the LJ/SLJ Ebook Usage reports track long-term trends in public, academic, and K-12 school libraries, presenting detailed information about how libraries are adapting to this technology. Sponsored by Freading, Ebooks on EBSCOhost, and Follett, this year’s reports are freely available for download.

Despite growing frustration with the ebook pricing and availability policies of many publishers, U.S. libraries have continued to respond to growing demand from patrons by rapidly expanding their collections of ebooks, according to LJ and SLJs third annual “2012 Survey of Ebook Usage in U.S. Public Libraries” report, sponsored by Freading.

“Almost nine in ten public libraries currently offer ebooks to their users, and 35 percent of those that don’t are in the process of adding them,” the 100-page report notes. In 2010, libraries offered an average of 1,500 ebooks. Now libraries offer their patrons an average of about 10,000 ebooks for lending, either as part of the library’s own collection or available through a consortium.

And demand continues growing at a brisk pace. Average circulation more than doubled from 5,000 to 11,000 between 2009 and 2010, and then quadrupled from 11,000 to 44,000 between 2010 and 2011. Respondents said they expect ebook circulation to rise another 67 percent this year.

The most active ebook borrowers tend to be in the 35 to 44 age range, followed closely by patrons aged 45 to 54. However, the fastest growing group of borrowers are teens and young adults, possibly due to the recent expansion of young adult collections at many libraries. In 2012, 91 percent of libraries that offer ebooks listed young adult fiction as an ebook genre provided by their library, up from 80 percent in 2011.

“It could also be that this is the prime ‘gadget’ generation. It could also be the vampires…” the report speculates.

Ninety percent of libraries that loan ebooks say that their patrons use dedicated ereader devices—such as the Barnes & Noble Nook, the Amazon Kindle or the Sony Reader—to read borrowed ebooks. Sixty-six percent said their patrons use tablet computers, and 41 percent said their patrons download and read ebooks on their smartphones—down from 61 percent in 2011.

Managing explosive demand

Libraries are doing what they can to respond to the growing popularity of ebooks, but budgets remain tight. Large libraries serving populations over 500,000 said they expected to spend 7.5 percent of their total materials budget on ebooks in 2012, up from 4 percent last year. Similarly, smaller libraries, serving populations of less than 25,000 said that their ebook spending had reached 5.2 percent of their total materials budget in 2012, up from 2.5 percent last year. Among libraries that still do not offer ebooks, financial constraints were listed as the top reason.

To build these collections many libraries have had to reallocate funds that were formerly budgeted for print books or other physical materials. In 2010, only 38 percent of respondents said that they had reallocated funds to purchase ebooks, compared with 68 percent this year.

Yet librarians are still very frustrated with the pricing and availability policies of many major publishers. When asked to select factors that were deterring patrons from checking out more ebooks, the top three complaints were long wait times, a limited selection of titles, and in-demand titles that are completely unavailable to libraries.

“Ereaders have become so affordable for the public and they are willing to buy

a couple of books,” one respondent wrote. “After those initial purchases, they come to the library looking for the content. It has been very difficult to help the public understand why there is not enough content available through the library. When staff tries to explain the costs and that only two of the big six are working with libraries, some are stunned and others walk away shaking their heads.”

Encouragingly, librarians believe that public awareness of their ebook collections is on the rise. In 2010, almost 60 percent of respondents cited unawareness as a barrier to increased ebook circulation. Now, only 35 percent believe that this is still a key problem.

Academic libraries prioritize access

Academic libraries serving colleges, universities and other institutes of higher learning tend to have a broader definition of ebooks than public libraries, notes the third annual “2012 Survey of Ebook Usage in U.S. Academic Libraries,” sponsored by Ebooks on EBSCOhost. In addition to fiction and nonfiction titles, academic ebooks can refer to reference books, academic journals, scholarly monographs, etextbooks, electronic reference materials, and “even long documents available solely as Web pages,” the report notes.

Academic libraries were also early adopters of ebooks. So it is little surprise that the average academic collection is considerably larger than what users would find at public libraries. In 2012, graduate and professional libraries offered an average of almost 140,000 ebooks, while undergraduate libraries offered more than 80,000, and community college libraries offered 32,400. From 2011 to 2012, the overall percentage increase in number of ebooks offered was 41 percent.

Circulation of ebooks nearly doubled in graduate and professional libraries—from an average of 16,200 to 35,881 between the school year ending in 2010 to the year ending in 2011. Undergraduate libraries experienced a nearly sixfold increase, from 4,800 to 27,550 during the same time period, while circulation remained relatively flat at community college libraries, rising from 3,200 to 3,873.

All of these circulation totals are substantially smaller than the average collection listed by each type of academic library. But, as the report notes, “the lead story in this market is all about access; in the 2010 and 2011 surveys, the top driver of ebook acquisition was ‘projected usage.’ In 2012, the top influencing factors are ‘24/7 access’—selected by 74 percent of respondents—and ‘supports distance learners,’ cited by 72 percent. ‘[Allows] multiple users at one time’ is third at 70 percent.”

Spending appears to have plateaued, with respondents reporting an average of $67,400, and a median of $16,600 spent on ebooks during the 2011-2012 academic year, compared with an average of $65,000 and a median of $17,500 the year prior. Currently, ebooks represent an average of almost 10 percent of academic libraries’ acquisitions budget, and respondents expect that share to grow to almost 20 percent by 2017.

Unlike patrons at public libraries, the majority college students tend to access and read this content on personal computer or laptop (75 percent), or a library computer (58 percent). Only 40 percent of respondents said that students were accessing ebooks using tablets, and only 25 percent said that dedicated ereaders were being used.

K-12 still slow to adopt

Unlike public and academic libraries, which have prioritized ebook acquisition in recent years, K-12 school libraries still lag far behind, according to the third-annual “2012 Ebook Usage in U.S. School (K-12) Libraries,” sponsored by Follett. The majority of school libraries—60 percent—do not offer ebooks.

“There is a sense that a brief plateau has been reached as they await more comprehensive device adoption; school librarians are not seeing the overwhelming demand from students that public libraries have been seeing, nor do they have the budget to invest as heavily as they might like in new technologies,” the report explains. “At the same time, they are frustrated by roadblocks placed by publishers and vendors. Mixing all of these things together reveals a market that is sluggish, comparatively, in its evolution.”

The likelihood that a school library will offer ebooks increases by grade level. While only 33 percent of elementary school libraries currently offer ebooks, 50 percent of middle-school libraries, and 63 percent of high school libraries do.

And collections are small but growing, especially at high schools. Average collections topped 1,500 in high school libraries, and 435 in middle school libraries in 2012, up from 365 and 119, respectively in 2011. In high schools, reference books, young adult fiction, and young adult nonfiction are, in descending order, the three leading ebook categories, while middle-grade fiction, middle-grade nonfiction, and reference ebooks were the top three categories for middle schools.

Almost half of all respondents said that they were beginning to see increased demand for ebooks at their schools. During the 2010-2011 school year, circulation rose to an average of 799 at high schools, up from 177 in 2009-2010.

A lack of access to ereading devices was described by 64 percent of respondents as the leading barrier to ebook adoption by their library. A lack of funds for ebooks was listed second, by 53 percent of respondents, while 37 percent said that they were waiting to see what the best platform would be for adoption.

Similar to academic libraries, laptops and PCs were, by far, the leading devices used to access this content. Eighty-one percent of respondents said that computers were used to access ebooks at their schools, compared with 41 percent who said interactive whiteboards were used, 40 percent who said tablets were used, and 34 percent who said that dedicated ereaders were used.

“Librarians estimate that about 40 percent of the ebooks read on dedicated ereaders are read on student-owned devices,” the report notes. “But media specialists in general, and especially in less affluent areas, are concerned about providing ebooks for students who don’t have access to ereaders. To help address this device gap, 25 percent of schools currently circulate ereading devices, and a further 39 percent are considering it. Naturally, cost is a big barrier, as is the risk of lost or damaged ebook readers.”

Each of these three reports are available for free, courtesy of our sponsors, at

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Associate Editor, Technology for Library Journal.