During this pandemic, we’ve all been busy. Between work, Animal Crossing, schoolwork, snacks, and Zoom calls, it seems like there’s barely any time to read. But, never fear, there is! In fact, the demand for e-books has increased dramatically since the lockdown. People want to escape the difficulties of reality more than ever, and libraries are struggling to meet this demand while cautiously planning a future reopening.
Libraries have reacted to COVID-19 much like many places forced to closed—with innovation and creativity. The Williamsburg Regional Library, located in Williamsburg, Virginia, has converted its bookmobiles into free Wi-Fi hotspots that they can bring around the community. With Wi-Fi access more important than ever in the lockdown era, residents who previously depended on the library’s free WiFi would be left stranded. These mobile hotspots fix that while maintaining social distancing.
Some libraries, like the Chesterfield County Public Library, are offering curbside pick-up services, so people can keep reading while staying as safe as possible. Other libraries are also holding book clubs, reading sessions, and other events online to keep their communities engaged and connected during this pandemic. Libraries are doing a lot—but one thing people definitely want from libraries is e-books.
E-Book borrowing has dramatically increased since the lockdown. According to data collected by OverDrive, which many libraries use to distribute e-books and audiobooks, weekly library e-book lending has increased by nearly 50% since March 9, and audiobook check-outs are up 14%. People want to read, but lack of access to a physical library has been hindering them. E-Books solve this problem, so it’s no surprise that demand for them has jumped highly
What’s interesting about this jump is the distribution across books for different age groups. The demand for children’s e-books has more than doubled, while adult fiction and young adult fiction have only increased by a third and a half respectively. Susan Gross, a data analyst with OverDrive, said,
Now on certain days juvenile fiction surpasses adult non-fiction, which we havn’t seen before…our thought on that is that parents are probably trying to enrich their kids during the school week when they would typically be in school.
Furthermore, there’s been some shift in popularity among sub-sub-genres, though genres have remained mostly stable. “Motivation” and “happiness” title check-outs have increased within the self-help genre, which makes sense given that COVID-19 and “lack of motivation” and “lack of happiness” go hand in hand. Additionally, Richard Reyes-Gavilan, Executive Director for the District of Columbia Public Libraries, has seen greater interest in books on pandemics and on race relations.
What will happen to this increased demand for e-books and the more expansive array of online library services once libraries reopen? It’s unclear, like so many pandemic-related things are, but it’s not looking good for libraries. Compared to physical books, e-books are a lot more expensive for libraries. Libraries actually pay three-to-five times more for a single copy of an e-book compared to a physical book. And, unlike physical books, libraries don’t have permanent access to the e-books they purchase. Library licenses are often limited by time, or by number of checkouts. So, overall, e-books are expensive and temporary, while physical books are less expensive and permanent (or at least less temporary).
Since libraries are struggling to distribute the more economically viable physical books while customers eagerly demand more expensive e-books, this pandemic could, and is, creating financial problems for libraries. Even as libraries cautiously move into reopening, this demand for e-books could continue as people are still afraid to expose themselves for nonessential reasons. And while supporting libraries through any means is important, let’s not forget that e-books drain financial resources in a way physical books don’t.
Feature Image via Montgomery Community Media