Pew Research Center released the results of a survey about young adults and their use of libraries and reading habits. This was taken as great news in the library community, and Library Journal declared that “Teens still love print media.”
Unfortunately, that’s not at all what the results reported, nor what the survey asked.
From the study’s findings:
Among all those ages 16-29, 19% read an e-book during 2011, while 25% did so in 2012. At the same time, however, print reading among younger Americans has remained steady: When asked if they had read at least one print book in the past year, the same proportion (75%) of Americans under age 30 said they had both in 2011 and in 2012.
In fact, younger Americans under age 30 are now significantly more likely than older adults to have read a book in print in the past year (75% of all Americans ages 16-29 say this, compared with 64% of those ages 30 and older). And more than eight in ten (85%) older teens ages 16-17 read a print book in the past year, making them significantly more likely to have done so than any other age group.
So can we conclude that “teens still love print media”?
No. We can say that 75% of 16-29 year olds have read at least one print book in the past year. And that is more than those over the age of 30.
Textbooks, anyone? I am 18 credits (halfway) into my graduate library science degree, and I fall in the 16-29 age bracket, and I have used one digital textbook so far out of those six classes. So yes, I too have read at least one print book this year, even though all of my pleasure reading has been happening on my Kindle or iPad. If we can say that textbooks are driving the print book usage, then it’s no surprise that those who fall outside the range of traditional high school, college, and graduate students are reading less print books.
Pew acknowledges in their full report (PDF) that previous research they have done has shown that “younger respondents are more likely to read for work or school” (p. 16). Fiction books are very easy to find in an ebook format. Even popular non-fiction is, too. However, textbooks still lag behind.
An interesting result – that is generally ignored because 75% of young adults reading one print book in the course of the year sounds like a big number – is that the percentage of young adults who have read one ebook increased from 19% to 25% in one year.
Pew did not ask if young adults preferred print books to ebooks. We can say that young adults are more likely to read a print book than an ebook (75% read a print book, but only 25% read an ebook), and more likely to read a print book than older adults (75% to 64%), but we cannot conclude that it’s because they prefer print. It could be that there are many school-related texts that are not available in an ebook. I don’t know if I would call my digital textbook an ebook – I used it through a web-browser and it was quite interactive (it was very unbook-like). So perhaps young adults are not reporting these as ebooks.
In any case, Library Journal (and others) blew the headline. It could simply be about, as the New Republic also concludes, availability rather than popularity or preference. There’s no way to know, since Pew didn’t ask why young adults were more likely to have read a print book than an ebook.
I’m glad that young adults are still reading print books. And I’m glad they’re using libraries and don’t think libraries should be gutted to make room for more technology. But let’s be honest and cautious about the survey’s intentions and its findings. The fact that 85% of teens aged 16-17 reported reading one book at all is cause for celebration.