May 19, 2024

Survey: Library Ebook Growth Slowing but Still Substantial

Library Journal’s fifth annual Ebook Usage in U.S. Public Libraries reportNinety-five percent of public libraries currently offer ebooks to patrons, up from 72 percent in 2010, and 89 percent in both 2012 and 2013. However, money remains the biggest impediment for libraries looking to add ebooks or expand collections, according to Library Journal’s fifth annual Ebook Usage in U.S. Public Libraries report, sponsored by Freading.

The growth in demand for ebooks has cooled during the past four years, although as the report notes, this “is only because [ebooks] have become less of a novelty and more mainstream.” Survey respondents said they expected to see their library’s ebook circulation grow by 25 percent this fiscal year, compared with 108 percent growth in 2011, 67 percent in 2012, and 39 percent in 2013.

Collections have grown substantially during the past four years as well, and increased options and availability for patrons likely played a role in slowing the growth in demand. In 2010, the median number of ebooks offered by libraries was only 813, compared with a median of 10,484 titles in 2014—an increase of nearly 1,200 percent. Median circulation, meanwhile, increased five-fold during that period, from 2,600 in 2010, to 13,418 through the end of FY2013. Respondents from the largest library systems—those serving populations of 500,000 or more—said that their ebook holdings have increased even more substantially. Those collections, on average, now exceed 30,000 titles.

Sixty-four percent of respondents also said that membership in a consortium enables their library to offer access to a larger selection of ebook titles.

Survey respondents reported that their ebook collections are 74 percent fiction and 26 percent nonfiction, while print book collections were split at 57 percent fiction and 43 percent nonfiction. The top five fiction ebook categories reported by respondents are bestsellers, mystery/suspense, romance, general adult fiction, and YA fiction, while the top five nonfiction categories are bestsellers, biographies/memoirs, history, self-help, and cooking.

Although almost 60 percent of respondents said that their library does not offer “alternative” ebooks, 20 percent now include ebooks from small and independent presses in their collections, while 14 percent offer e-originals and self-published content.

The report projects total spending on ebooks by U.S. public libraries to be nearly $113 million in FY2014. “In their last complete fiscal year, public libraries independently purchased or licensed a mean of 1,933 ebook volumes (median 565) and spent on average $57,342 (median $13,002) on them,” the report explains. “If we divide one by the other, we can estimate a cost range of $23.01 to $29.66 per ebook. This is oversimplified, of course, as many titles have maximum usage restrictions and others are purported to cost up to three times the cost of the same title in print.”

Finding the funds to build these collections has posed an ongoing challenge for many libraries. Budgets, in many cases, have remained flat during the past several years, leading two-thirds of libraries to re-allocate funding from elsewhere in their materials budget in order to build their ebook collections. As a percentage of total materials budgets, ebook spending has risen from less than 2 percent on average in 2010 to more than 7 percent in 2014, and respondents expect this percentage to double by 2019. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said that funds for ebooks had been pulled from their reference materials budgets, while 56 percent said that their library had drawn from its print budget. More than 20 percent of respondents said they now purchase fewer print books. And, of the five percent of respondents who said that their library does not offer ebooks, 70 percent cited the lack of funds as their primary reason.

Tablets Take Over

For the first time this year, tablets overtook dedicated e-readers as the device of choice for ebook readers. Eighty-four percent of respondents said that their library’s patrons were using tablets such as iPads, Kindle Fires, or Google Nexus tablets to check out ebooks, while 78 percent said that patrons were using dedicated e-reader devices such as NOOKs or Kindle Paperwhites. This compares to 66 percent who said patrons were using tablets for ebooks in 2012, and 90 percent who said patrons were using dedicated e-readers.

“Tablets will likely continue to take over, as they can access a wider variety of content, from ebooks to streaming video, to music, to audiobooks, to the Internet in general,” the report notes. “The killer app for the earliest dedicated ereaders like the Kindle was the reflective display which was ‘as easy to read as paper.’ Well, these days, people are more used to reading on screens than on paper, and backlit screens have improved so that older eyes can read even smartphone screens with minimal squinting.”

The number of libraries that lend out e-readers dropped from 40 percent in last year’s survey to 32 percent this year. About 55 percent of respondents said that their devices were preloaded with ebooks, while 25 percent said that their library offered preloaded devices and also enabled patrons to download their own content. Often described as a means to enable patrons to explore new technology, the programs appear to be declining as a growing number of patrons own their own smartphones, tablets, and e-readers. While 13 percent of respondents said that their library had plans to acquire more dedicated e-readers, and 17 percent said that they planned to replace broken devices, 55 percent said they had no plans to purchase additional devices.

E-reader lending programs continue to be most popular in small to mid-sized libraries, with 33 percent of respondents from libraries serving populations of 25,000 or less reporting such a program, and 38 percent of respondents from libraries serving a population of 25,000 to 99,000 reporting such a program. Only 13 percent of libraries serving 500,000 or more patrons loan e-reading devices.

The fifth annual Ebook Usage in U.S. Public Libraries report consists of responses to a survey developed, hosted, and tabulated in-house by Library Journal, and fielded from April 4 to July 2, 2014. With data cleaned to eliminate duplicate responses from the same library, the final survey results consist of responses from 538 public libraries throughout the United States. The complete, 120-page report, featuring granular data on the topics listed above and more, is available for free in PDF format, courtesy of Freading, a Library Ideas company. A companion survey and report was created for U.S. school libraries by School Library Journal.

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

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


  1. Chris Armstrong says:

    It is impossible to access this report in the UK as you cannot get past a form requiring a phone number in some fixed format (unspecified) that does not work with UK numbers!