Despite tight budgets that have compounded the numerous challenges to implementation, media specialists are “generally enthusiastic about the continued adoption of ebooks” by their students, and usage in school libraries—especially at the high school level—is expected to continue rising incrementally, according to the 2013 Survey of Ebook Usage in U.S. School (K–12) Libraries. The annual survey, the fourth of its kind, was produced by School Library Journal and sponsored by Follett.
Ebooks have yet to become as popular in school libraries as in public libraries, the survey finds, with districts still working to narrow the digital divide among students. However, that is poised to change; new initiatives, such as “1:1 schools” have emerged to ease ebook and device adoption in schools.
“So for now, interest in ebooks is creeping, if not soaring, upward in school libraries,” the survey finds.
However, the survey also suggests that the next generation of readers will continue to straddle both the print and electronic book worlds, as ebook use among the youngest grades generally declining.
“There is a duality to reading that today’s children are used to,” the study finds. “…it’s not unusual to hear that many children, tweens, and teens still prefer reading physical print books, even as they do countless other things on electronic devices. The fact that they are comfortable with both formats is useful to bear in mind when interpreting the quantitative results of this survey.”
Among the survey’s top findings is that the number of school libraries’ ebook collections and the size of those collections is steadily growing. In 2013, 56 percent of library media centers (LMCs) offered ebooks to students and faculty, 16 percent more than in 2012. At the same time, the average number of titles on hand was 136, an increase of 325 percent from 2010, the first year the survey was conducted.
Yet user demand among students has leveled off since SLJ’s previous survey. Just over four-in-ten respondents (44 percent) witnessed an increase in demand for ebooks this year, compared with 46 percent last year. Only nine percent of respondents indicate a “dramatic” increase in demand. Also of note is that 23 percent of school libraries reported receiving zero requests for ebooks this year.
Regarding the specifics of collections, more than half (57 percent) of school libraries’ ebooks are nonfiction titles, while 43 percent are fiction. Among elementary schools, the top titles are animals, science/math/technology, and biology in the nonfiction category, with realistic fiction, fantasy, and graphic novels comprising most of the fiction. For middle grades, the top nonfiction categories are history, science/math/technology, and biography, with fantasy, realistic fiction, and adventure thrillers the top fiction titles. For high schools, the top nonfiction ebooks are history, science/math/technology, and biography titles, with realistic fiction, fantasy, and adventure thrillers the top fiction titles.
Some good news for school librarians appears in the survey: that of steady and rising ebook budgets. In the 2012–2013 school year, LMCs spent on average $1,114 (median $401) on ebooks, and one-fifth of respondents to the survey say that they spent none of their own budgets on ebooks because these were made available to them through the state, school district, or consortium membership. The survey extrapolates that an estimated $73 million was spent on ebooks in U.S. schools in 2012–2013. And since last year’s survey, the percentage of LMCs’ materials budgets spent on ebooks has nearly doubled, with that percentage expected to more than triple by 2018.
“The challenge for school libraries is expanding ebook collections while also maintaining print book and media collections, and other services,” the survey adds, noting that 39 percent of respondents needed to reallocate funds from other areas—predominantly print books—to pay for ebooks for their LMCs.
The survey also finds that it is common for school librarians to purchase titles in both print and electronic formats. Six percent of respondents “always” buy a print edition of any ebook they purchase, while 3 percent “usually” do, and 52 percent “occasionally” do. And in many schools, printed textbooks are being replaced with electronic textbooks, delivered as ebooks, apps, or other digital content. A substantial number of respondents also note that they were transitioning to what are called “1:1 schools,” where each student is given a tablet or laptop, and learning and assignments take place largely via these devices. Some are also transitioning to etextbooks, such as Florida.
That said, 67 percent of respondents say they currently have no plans to transition from print to electronic textbooks, while 16 percent say their school is considering it. Twelve percent purchase some new textbooks digitally, while 5 percent have a mandate to transition.
The “school desktop computer” remains the top method by which students access a school library’s ebook collection, selected by 76 percent of respondents. “School laptop” was selected by 48 percent, with “interactive whiteboard” used by 41 percent. Fifty-seven percent of respondents cited student-owned devices being used for reading school ebooks, with 39 percent saying students used their own tablets, 30 percent their own dedicated ereaders, and 23 percent a smartphone. Students’ use of their own devices typicallys fall within a school or district’s BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy.
At the same time, many schools/school districts prohibit the use of personal mobile devices, forcing students to rely on school-provided devices.
In its conclusions, the survey confirms a “slowly growing trend” toward ebooks, especially as children at younger and younger ages have access to tablets or ereaders—although many parents, teachers, and children themselves prefer to remain immersed in print books.
So as the kids born in 2007, the same year the iPhone was introduced, start elementary school this fall, they will likely grow up “ambitextrous,” comfortable and open to reading both formats.