The Library Journal/School Library Journal sixth annual Survey of Ebook Usage in U.S. Public Libraries, just released online as a PDF, shows some fascinating trends in ebook adoption, usage, and popularity across America’s libraries. And above all, it states, “if it appears from the current survey (based on 317 U.S. public libraries responding) that much of the enthusiasm for ebooks has cooled, it is only because they have become less of a novelty and more mainstream … ebooks are firmly ensconced in public libraries.” Now, 94 percent of libraries offer ebooks to users, “down one percentage point from last year.”
According to the Survey, no one expects ebooks to oust print, or to recede into insignificance. All kinds of format combinations have their fans, “and libraries are required to support all of these.” A small tranche of libraries will never adopt ebooks “—due to a combination of poor finances and low demand—but that will likely be 1–2% of all public libraries overall.” In fact, the Survey observes, “the biggest impediment to adding or expanding ebook offerings is money. Lack of demand for ebooks from patrons is increasing as a factor, but it is far and away economics that keeps ebook adoption short of 100%.” And while the rate of growth of ebook circulation may have slowed, the Survey still expects this to rise by 14 percent over the next fiscal year.
With an unbiased and data-driven perspective, the Survey also gives a chance to look in more objective detail at claims of slowing ebook demand. And its conclusions tend to bear out the interpretation that Big Publishing’s ballyhooed headlines of lower ebook sales are more about their shrinking share of the market than the retreat of the ebook platform as a whole. “The headline — ‘Ebook sales declining’ — misses some crucial nuances. Traditional sales tracking methodologies don’t capture the rise of independent and self-published ebooks, which should not be ignored. It’s not just ‘vanity publishing’ anymore.” That said, “the majority of libraries [80 percent] do not offer self‐published ebooks, with the primary difficulty being not knowing what’s available and what is of sufficient quality. There are few booklists and lists of new releases.” So clearly the independent and self-published communities have some catching up to do in supplying libraries. OverDrive is still the dominant supplier to libraries, with 90 percent of libraries using it “to some extent,” so perhaps that would be a good starting point.
There’s plenty more meat to be found in this feast of data. The entire Survey makes for fascinating reading in depth. And its conclusions sound like the kind of pragmatic, broad-minded consensus that print and ebook advocates alike should be satisfied with.