The ALA Midwinter Meeting came and went again. and with all the snow it was a bleak midwinter indeed.
Normally I’d complain about being in Philadelphia in the winter instead of being in some more comfortable climate, but where would we go? Atlanta? I’m betting there are some folks in Atlanta saying, “See? I told you global warming was a hoax!”
What a mess. Anyway, when I wasn’t dozing off in presentations, I finally had a chance to read the Pew Internet Trust study on reading and ebooks. More people are reading ebooks. Lots of people have reading devices of some sort. Etc.
What struck me most was page 6, the demographic portrait of who is reading. Age group and community type didn’t seem to matter much, but gender, race, education, and household income sure did.
Moving from high school to college grad, the percentage that had read at least one book in the last year in any format jumped from 64% to 88%.
The $50,000 household income seems to be a threshold as well. 68% of people with household incomes below $30,000 read a book in the last year. 85% with incomes $50-75,000, and 83% with incomes over $75,000.
Once you’re making the big bucks, if you count $75,000 “big bucks,” I guess you’re too busy checking your stock portfolios to read quite as much.
And for ebooks, the leap was even higher, unsurprisingly. 14% of the under-$30,000 group had read an ebook, 43% and 46% of the highest income groups.
The larger discrepancy makes a lot of sense. If your household income is under $30,000, there’s not going to be much discretionary income to purchase electronic reading devices.
And a lot of people don’t think twice about buying an ebook they want to read, especially the popular ebooks on Amazon for under $10, but $10 is a lot more meaningful when you’re poor.
However, the closer we crawl to a world of only ebooks, or only ebooks for any book people would actually want to read, the more the poor are going to be left out.
They won’t be able to buy books. There will probably never be a legal ebook equivalent of used book stores or paperback trading stores that make reading popular fiction so cheap.
They’ll have to use libraries. But if all the excited talk about “the library of the future” is true, the library of the future won’t have many print books, which means the poor won’t be able to use libraries.
But why not, says the iPad toting librarian reading this? There’s a bit of “friction,” but they can just get books on their devices. Except, of course, they can’t afford devices.
The paperless library of the future isn’t particularly rosy even for those of us with devices, because the more control publishers have over the end product the less control libraries have.
Of course, that will save the poor a lot of frustration, since they’ll never have to figure out how to get that new Grisham novel onto their iPad.
But libraries can just lend devices! They already do! Yes, they do, but they could never have enough devices to be more than a tiny percentage of the number of books usually available.
Combine this with the current trend of closing school libraries, and the reading future of the bottom quarter of Americans is dim.
I don’t just say that because I’m a librarian and thus must love to read. I say that because reading is correlated with a bunch of other social indicators, and children who read better do better in school and have better college and job prospects than illiterate people. But if they can’t afford books and the libraries are closed or useful only for people with reading devices, literacy is harder to achieve.
So while we’re all gloating about the library of the future and the ebook revolution and all that jazz, we might think about all the people being left out of the glorious revolutionary future.
Or not. Those people are used to being excluded anyway. It becomes a habit that libraries will be increasingly unable to break on the off chance they’re even willing.