Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Ebooks and the Poor

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.



  1. The used bookstore alternative for ebooks is piracy, and it’s easy enough these days that people priced out of the market are going to resort to it despite the best DRM efforts of publishing gatekeepers. And it’s going to hurt libraries as much as publishers if ebooks catch on in a big way. Who wants to wait two years to get the one digital copy of 50 Shades at the library when it’s available instantly out there in the more unscrupulous corners of the Internet?

    I find piracy abhorrent and feel that if you like an artist you should support them, but there are a lot more people out there who either don’t think about that or plain don’t care as long as something is free.

    • Yeah but to engage in piracy, you have to have a device and a certain amount of electronic literacy that the older and/or poorer demographics just won’t have.

    • Not particularly. I worked in extremely low income areas for several years and everyone still had a smartphone. Older models are literally given away for free and any of them can run ereader software. And there was an entire bootleg economy in the area where people with the technological know-how to pirate sold their pirated materials to other people for a steep discount.

  2. Matthew Williams says:

    I’ve been worried about this for quite a while. Gone is they library as any kind of equalizing force.

  3. Matthew Williams says:

    It’s not that hard for people to justify if they feel they are being marginalized and priced out. Not saying it’s right. Look how many of us oldies used to tape record our friends stuff because we were poor high school and college students.

  4. Matthew Williams says:


  5. Libraries are just like any business (except w/no profit)…they try to meet the needs/demands of the people they serve (or at least they should). I can remember when our library did away w/cassette & Videocassette tapes. We (the horrified librarians) said this wasn’t fair. The people in our community can’t all afford CD & DVD players! But amazingly, as we slowly phased out the old technology, and the prices of the new devices for playing the new technology began coming down (as they do), we didn’t loose customers. They’re still coming! There are so many factors to consider. I think the argument about physical books vs. digital ones in so unnecessary. Perhaps there are some libraries that will completely do away w/physical books–hopefully they have a wise director & board who will make that decision wisely, but I think most libraries will continue offering physical books, digital books, DVDs, CD, etc–whatever the demand of the people in their community calls for. (See article: Richer communities will most likely be more digital, poorer communities won’t. And as time goes on, the prices of eReaders & tablets will fall and more people will be able to afford them and so, wise library people will adjust their materials to meet the demand of their customers.
    As for school libraries closing…a completely different animal. You can’t really compare the two situations. The problems with school libraries is that the communities can’t support them.

    • librariankris says:

      I wouldn’t want to put words into AL’s mouth, but I don’t think she’s comparing school libraries closing to public libraries going more digital…she’s just saying that the two together are adding to a future where poorer kid are going to have a tough time accessing books if their current means of accessing books get closed to them, and research has shown time and time again that exposure to books (just having them around) correlate directly to success with reading and academic success for children.

  6. Stephen Michael Kellat says:

    I do seem to be running out of shelf space as I am acquiring print materials. Outside the Baen Free Library and Walt Crawford’s Cites and Insights, I don’t really purchase ebooks. I think I’ll let this revolution pass me by.

  7. The cost of e-readers is not the driving force here, but rather the outrageous price publishers charge libraries for individual titles. We could give away free e-readers and libraries would still not be able to provide a collection of any meaningful depth and breadth to meet the needs of patrons — we already cannot provide enough e-copies of popular fiction and we buy at a 4:1 ratio of print to digital.

  8. Who are these ipad toting librarians? Not me – either personally or at work. Can’t afford one.

  9. Perhaps public libraries and school libraries should combine.

    One of our library people suggested letting a local schools’ librarians issue cards to our public library, which is part of a large consortium of public libraries. That didn’t fly because there are privacy issues concerning our databases that a school library can’t really safeguard. That was the argument anyway. But maybe we could have library clerks staff the school library check out desks? Maybe combine back office functions like cataloging and ILS software so that they have access to more than just the books that can fit in a small school library. We already share resources between public libraries in our community. Why couldn’t we do the same with school libraries? And there are more schools in our community than branch libraries so we would be expanding our reach/distribution and make the materials more accessible for those who don’t have convenient access to public libraries.

    As for lack of access for the poor to ereaders– it’s not that different from not having access to a library because their borrowing privileges have been suspended because they can’t pay late fines or for lost or damaged books. Or they just can’t visit as often as they like at a time which is convenient for them. Or they simply don’t want to go to the library.

    Reading ability and literacy may not be standards to which they aspire. Maybe they’re made to feel uncomfortable because someone else created a standard of success which is being used to measure them. Or maybe their role models don’t value reading/literacy as much as some of us.

    If this seems callous and uncaring, it isn’t meant to be. The truth is that we’ve been writing off groups and (sub)cultures for a long time and for whatever reason we could come up with. That’s heartbreaking to have to admit. I think some people– maybe most– just need to have someone to look down on. That might change. Knowledge and insights haven’t been standing still all this time. Maybe the rest of us need to be better human beings before those at the margins of society can begin to flourish in these fast-changing times.

  10. Frumious Bandersnatch says:

    It should be pointed out that any library that is lending a device with content on it is probably violating the TOS (Terms of Service) of either the device or media producer. I suspect that the main reason this hasn’t been an issue is simply because it hasn’t reached a point where it would be profitable for corporations to make an issue of it.

  11. Matthew Williams says:

    “As for lack of access for the poor to ereaders– it’s not that different from not having access to a library because their borrowing privileges have been suspended because they can’t pay late fines or for lost or damaged books. Or they just can’t visit as often as they like at a time which is convenient for them. Or they simply don’t want to go to the library. ”

    Dennis: Returning a book late or losing it and racking up fines and fees is a choice the patron made. Not wanting to go to a library is choices. Making them buy a device they can’t afford in order to access books and information is not a choice. It’s taking their choice to read and inform themselves away from them. Even those who want to go to the library and do return their items on time will be denied the opportunity of access. It’s not the same thing at all.

    • Dennis383 says:

      You’re correct if e-readers are required. We aren’t at that point yet.

      And racking up fines and replacement fees for lost and damaged materials isn’t necessarily any more of a choice than poverty. Items can be stolen or damaged, friends, relatives, etc. can use someone else’s card to borrow materials and never return them.

    • roy frowick says:

      Loaning your card to “friends, relatives, etc.” is a choice. It is a choice made which contramands the rules made clear to them at the time of application for a card.

  12. Dennis383 says:

    Cards aren’t necessarily loaned to friends, relatives, etc. Parents are well known to use the cards of their children after they’ve racked up enormous fines and fees on their own. And then they repeat the behavior with their child’s card.

  13. There are 130 million books in the world. I think if one wants to read a book, one can find one to read. Even if you’re a poor person.

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