June 14, 2021

What Patrons Teach Us—and Publishers Should Learn

Print and ebooks go hand in hand for active library users, and publishers should take note

Illustration © Court Patton, pattonbros.com

A new report from LJ indicates that it is vital for libraries to connect with digital patrons, especially ebook readers, and satisfying their expectations has a meaningful upside for both the library users and the publishing community.

The report, “Mobile Devices, Mobile Content, and Library Apps,” a part of LJ’s ongoing Patron Profiles series, points out that even though digital users—defined as a patron who uses a smartphone, ereader, or tablet—remain a minority, they are, nonetheless, more active than the general patron not only in digital services but also “in virtually every metric of library activity.” As such, they could guide librarians in understanding the intersection of their print holdings and their growing digital collections.

“What we are trying to do with Patron Profiles is to help librarians better understand their patrons as consumers of media, or content, and how patrons are using libraries as content providers, particularly digital content,” said Ian Singer, VP and group publisher for LJ, School Library Journal, and The Horn Book. “The preferences and behaviors we are finding are key to helping libraries keep pace with the overarching trends in digital consumption and technologies that enable both reading and discovery of content,” he said.

LJ surveyed 2,155 library patrons in conjunction with Bowker PubTrack Consumer, and the results were analyzed by Steve Paxhia and John Parsons, who also prepared the highly regarded November 2011 ebook study from the Book Industry Study Group.

The ebook patron

One subgroup the LJ report is trending over the first four issues of the series is the ebook patron, whom the report defines as a patron who has downloaded and read an ebook from any source. Ebook patrons accounted for 22 percent (476) of all respondents. However, only ten percent of these ebook patrons borrowed an ebook from the library. Many (23 percent) had technical difficulty downloading from the library, and 44 percent responded that the library did not have the title they wanted.

“This disparity shows the opportunity for libraries to provide better ebook services, as well as the potential threat of patrons becoming comfortable with buying ebooks instead,” the report notes. It also illustrates how essential it is for librarians to be at the table with publishers “with a clear message on what they need to circulate ebooks.”

Even the 102 percent jump in ebook circulation reported in LJ’s 2012 Book Buying Survey (coming soon) appears inadequate to meet demand, as 74 percent of the ebook patrons in the Patron Profiles report say they want even more ebooks in the ­library.

However, the report also shows that ebook patrons are not just about ebook consumption. They consistently polled higher than other patrons in onsite library activities, from borrowing DVDs to attending library events. And they outstripped other patrons in online activity, from catalog searches to placing holds on titles.

“If ebook patrons’ activities are representative of future demand for library services—including not only ebook consumption but also digital services and mobile applications—then it is vital to note their preference and plan accordingly,” the report says.

The Power Patron

The LJ report said rectifying such missed service opportunities with the occasional user is an important step in helping to turn those users into Power Patrons, users who visit the library at least once a week. This is a vital strategic move because, according to the report, Power Patrons seem “to understand their libraries’ full range of services” (“Snapshot of the Power Patron,” below).

“These data suggest that one of the greatest challenges for libraries is to find ways to communicate with potential Power Patrons and to engage them with the full set of media consumption activities,” the report says. Power Patrons, who are more likely to be women and slightly higher educated than occasional patrons, set “the pace for library use and are a model to study when designing services to foster engagement with the library.”

The Power Patron is also a key factor in what the report calls “a symbiotic relationship between library patronage and consumer book purchasing”: 37 percent of Power Patrons reported purchasing a book they had previously borrowed from the library, and 67 percent said they had bought a book by an author they first discovered in the library. But even those who use the library less often contribute mightily to the book buying ecosystem. “It’s exciting to have data to back the sense that library use is also an economic engine for the book industry,” says Rebecca T. Miller, series editor for Patron Profiles and editor in chief of SLJ . “Publishers now have proof of how libraries support their business models, and we hope this will guide their thinking on how best to partner with libraries to foster the most robust culture of literacy possible.”

Still, a dearth of library apps

In the LJ survey, 28 percent of the respondents had a smartphone, 16 percent had a dedicated ereader, and 12 percent owned a tablet.

Even as the ownership of such devices steadily expands and alters patrons’ expectations of the library, the report shows that many libraries do not have a dedicated mobile app and only about three percent of patrons have actually used one. Nevertheless, there is a strong demand for apps among key patron subgroups that are more likely to own a mobile device and who demand expansion of the full range of library services, from movies to games to ebook collections to placing holds on print.

“Such demand will continue to grow as long as new mobile digital devices are selling rapidly, and it points to a problematic gap for libraries in terms of delivering enough to meet expectations,” the report says.

A report released January 23 by the Pew Internet & American Life Project reinforces that this demand is part of the larger, inexorable surge in the dedicated ereader and tablet markets. The Pew report shows that the number of Americans owning at least one of these digital reading devices jumped from 18 percent in December to 29 percent in January. Also, Juniper Research has predicted that annual revenues from ebooks for portable devices will jump to $9.7 billion by 2016, up from $3.2 billion in 2011.

Providing convenience

The experience of the Broward County Library in Florida bears out some of these findings. Broward launched its BCL WoW app, developed by Boopsie, in December. The app allows catalog search, account management, and other ­features.

“In that first month we had 1800 downloads of the app. We were amazed that it happened that quickly,” Stephen Grubb, the library’s e-services manager, told LJ for this article. “Those people made over 50,000 searches of the catalog in the first month.”

Rebecca Ranallo, the Internet and media service manager of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Ohio, said that patrons gravitate toward her Boopsie-developed library app, which launched in April 2011, for convenience.

“We see it as a convenience for people who are just looking for a quicker way to connect with libraries,” she told LJ.

Grubb did not have demographic information on these users, but he said that the people downloading the app frequently had not been library patrons previously or had not used the library for a long while.

The 21–40 demographic

The LJ report also highlights patrons in the 21–40 age group, which has a higher-than-average ownership of app-capable ­devices. “These patrons represent the future of the library in terms of new behaviors that are enabled by technology,” the report says.

The 21–40 group’s book borrowing behavior is slightly lower than the overall population, but these individuals make up for that by their borrowing of family-related media such as movies and games.

The report recommends libraries capitalize on this borrowing pattern to “turn them on to the whole collection” and to remember that, as with ebook users, “the mobile device ownership and digital media behavior of the 21–40 age group should inform libraries in planning their long-term mobile strategy.”

“Throughout my public library career I was hungry for data, most especially neutral, authoritative data that I could rely on,” said Barbara Genco, the project manager for Patron Profiles and a 34-year veteran of the Brooklyn Public Library. “Patron Profiles will keep foremost the knowledge that public library managers need.”

For more information on LJ’s Patron Profiles reports, visit www.thedigitalshift.com/research/patron-profiles

Register for our free webcast on 2/15: Meet the Power Patron: Insights from Patron Profiles

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.


  1. With six major publishers not selling us books or selling them at a very high price we either have a fight on our hands, a major debate to win, or a need to find new product of interest. I personally think we have been too afraid to work the legal angle but complacency is definitely dangerous.