September 22, 2023

LJ/SLJ Ebook Summit: More School Libraries Offer Ebooks; Increased Demand, Rise in Circulation


Despite severe budget constraints, the number of school libraries offering ebooks is on the rise–and a majority of media specialists plan to add digital books to their collections over the next two years, says a new study by School Library Journal and Library Journal.

The 90-page report, “Ebooks the New Normal: Ebook Penetration & Use in U.S. School (K-12) Libraries” follows last year’s findings that school libraries still lag behind public and academic libraries in terms of ebook purchases–but that’s slowly beginning to change.

A little less than half (44 percent) of our nation’s school libraries offer ebooks, up from 33 percent last year. And the higher the grade, the more likely students found digital books in their libraries, with 71 percent of high school libraries, 55 percent of middle schools, and 35 percent of elementary schools currently offering them.

Of the 56 percent of libraries without ebooks, 22 percent say they plan to purchase them for their collections over the next two years. Still, in these tough economic times, a whopping 60 percent say adding ebooks isn’t a priority, although they might consider buying them. Only 8 percent say they have no plans to add digital books to their libraries.

How much are librarians spending on ebooks? An estimated $1,020 in the 2010-2011 school year, which represents 2.9 percent of their overall materials budgets, up from 1.7 percent the previous year. School library respondents feel that in five years, ebooks will represent 8 percent of their total materials budget.

Of course, the many incompatible formats of ereaders remains a huge obstacle for libraries of all kinds, as well as the inability to download ebooks to individual ereaders. So it’s no surprise that some librarians are waiting for device standardization before committing to ebook purchases.

“Managing ebooks is taking up a larger and larger portion of my time,” wrote one respondent. “Currently we have ebooks from multiple publishers, including Gale, Marshall Cavendish, ABC CLIO, Salem, and Infobase. Plus, we now have Kindles with ebooks that we have purchased from Amazon, and we have several ebook titles purchased from Follett. Each ebook provider has a separate user interface with different features, making the whole ebook “stew” quite complicated for both users and the library.”

Some 64 percent of respondents ranked “maximum access” as their number one “fair and realistic” ebook licensing model, followed by “unlimited circulation using one reader/one book model,” which came in at 53 percent. Not surprisingly, only 4 percent supported a “lending cap model” similar to the recent HarperCollins cap at 26 circs.

Overall, the size of school library ebook collections increased dramatically in the past year to a mean of 397 in 2011 from 49 in 2010. High schools carried the largest selections in 2011, with a mean of 365 ebooks in their media centers, followed by 119 in middle schools, and 85 in elementary schools. Last year, those numbers were 60 for high schools, 47 for middle schools, and 45 for elementary schools.

Naturally more ebooks led to a boost in digital book circulation, which increased to an average of 313 in the 2010-2011 school year from 193 the previous year. This was most obvious in high schools, which saw a 71 percent rise, and in elementary schools, which had a 59 percent hike in circulation. Middle schools, which already had a relatively high ebook circulation last year, went up by 14 percent.

What’s in store for the future? Some 67 percent of this year’s 905 respondents predict ebook circulation will rise again next year, with an overall projected rate of 43 percent, especially as more school libraries allow remote access to their catalog.

“We purchased a new circulation and book library management system last year that allows remote access,” wrote one survey responder. “I expect our requests to increase by 100% because students will have access to our circulation from home.”

Not only did circulation rise, but 33 percent of librarians report seeing new faces walk through their doors as a direct result of offering ebooks, particularly in high schools. When we asked librarians about their primary reasons for buying ebooks, the top answers were: projected usage, multiple users allowed, and requests by faculty and students.

A little more than a quarter (27 percent) of respondents said there was an increased demand for ebooks in the past year, but only 6 percent thought it was “dramatic.” Increased demand for ebooks is highest among middle school users, with 58 percent of respondents saying they received no requests for ebooks.

What kinds of ebooks did school libraries offer? Nonfiction edged out fiction as the top category, with children’s nonfiction growing to 46 percent this year from 39 percent last year, while children’s fiction dropped to 45 percent from 51 percent. Elementary schools tend to include fiction and nonfiction, while high schools emphasize reference titles, followed by young adult fiction and nonfiction. For middle schools, young adult fiction was the top category offered.

Getting the word out about ebook collections is key, the study found. Shockingly, the top obstacles to ebook consumption are a lack of awareness that they’re available, followed by limited access to ereading devices, and a lack of training on how to use them.

Some 28 percent of school libraries don’t market their ebook collections, compared to 53 percent who recognize the power of spreading the word during classroom instruction. Forty-seven percent hope kids will find out about in through searching the general online catalog, while 32 percent of librarians have a link to their digital collection on the library’s website.

What’s the number one way kids enjoy reading ebooks? A dedicated ebook reader such as a Kindle–which starts selling for as little as $79 next month–has gained popularity, rising to 21 percent of respondents this year from 9 percent last year. Although only 30 percent of school libraries allow ebook downloads to personal ereading devices, ereaders will no doubt become even more popular once more school libraries allow this. Kids use the library computer less for reading ebooks, with only 56 percent using this method this year, compared to 72 percent last year. Students’ own desktop or laptop computers or netbooks remains relatively steady at 54 percent.

Barnes & Noble’s Nook seems to be the ereader of choice for school librarians over Amazon’s Kindle, but that may change due to the new low priced Kindles entering the market next month.

Follett ranked the top vendor school libraries turned to for ebooks, with Gale/Cengage a distant second. High school libraries are more likely to buy ebooks directly from publishers.

When it comes to ebooks, school librarians said a “fair price” was either very important or important to them, followed by “wide selection of titles and formats” and “customer service” tied at number two. “Ebook available from print vendor” was another request, as well as “multiple device options.” “Inclusion of color images” is also growing in importance-especially if ebooks are to appeal to younger readers.

Dig deeper into the ebook revolution

Full versions of this report are available for purchase, focused on public, academic, or school libraries and complete with detailed data broken down by size of library and budget, comparison of 2011 and 2010 data, and hundreds of comments from librarians about their experiences with ebooks:

2011 Survey of EBook Penetration and Use
(Separate reports for Public, K-12, and Academic Libraries)

About Debra Lau Whelan

Debra Lau Whelan is a former senior editor for news and features at SLJ.


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