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Reading In The 21st Century- Part 2: New Realities InfluenceD By Our Digital Transformation

by | Aug 18, 2022 | 0 comments



By: Nancy K. Herther, writer, consultant and former librarian with the University of Minnesota Libraries   


In an editorial published in the March 2022 issue of Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, Brenda K. Wiederhold, Clinical Instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at University of California, San Diego, examined the “many things that have contributed to BookTok’s success, not least the timing of the COVID pandemic. According to the UK’s National Literacy Trust, when lockdowns began in March 2020, indicators of reading for pleasure in young people was at a 15-year low.” Libraries as well as bookstores and schools have made BookTok another form of outreach and service to their communities.

Brenda K. Wiederhold

“However,” Wiederhold continues, “when it conducted another survey later in 2020, children’s enjoyment of reading had increased from 47.8% before lockdown to 55.9% after lockdown, with a third of young people saying that they were reading more during lockdown.” In another survey, a notable spike in reading was found in those aged 18–24, overlapping significantly with the age groups that use TikTok most.

Wiederhold believes that “BookTok coalesced at a unique time of social and physical upheaval. As the ‘real world’ closed down, we relied on digital spaces to connect with friends, family, work, and school. While this digital shift was abrupt and unsettling, in truth, most people already had experience with these spaces, and the transition to using them for social purposes was natural. Digital spaces provided environments where people could interact with like-minded individuals without fear of spreading illness. Like participants in other online communities, BookTok users found solace in the unity the platform could provide within what is otherwise a solitary hobby.”

“With BookTok influencing book sales so significantly,” she continues, “it is no surprise that publishers are taking notice. Recently published think pieces have predicted the death of books (again) in their traditional form, and the renewed popularity of reading them is an unforeseen change of direction. The publishing house Bloomsbury recently reported record sales and a 220% rise in profits, which they attribute, at least partly, to the BookTok phenomenon.”

To Wiederhold, this is an important opportunity, a turning point. “In the end, if we are willing to let books evolve as they have for millennia, how might technology continue to enhance the reader experience and fuel the passion for reading? Why not offer books that arrive paired with virtual reality or augmented reality software so that readers can enter the characters’ world and continue the story? Or provide access to an author’s fictional land via the metaverse, allowing fellow readers to interact organically? The opportunities for cooperation and (virtual) collaboration are compelling; the possibilities, limitless.” Limitless and beyond borders.

Nigerian scholar Angela Ebele Okpala notes that “reading is said to be more than seeing words clearly, more than pronouncing them correctly and more than recognizing their meanings in isolation of other groups of words. Reading requires the reader to think, feel and imagine.”


BookNet Canada noted an increase in reading by Canadians from 66% at the end of 2019 to 73% by mid 2020. Canadian readers indicating their strongest motivators were to read for pleasure (76%) and to gain knowledge or improve skills (40%). A May 2022 Booknet Canada blog reports that their 2021 study of “10,218 adult Canadians to identify 2,065 buyers…bought a total of 5,698 books; a monthly average of 2.76 books per buyer…Of all the book buyers surveyed, 459, or 22%, also borrowed books. We’ll call those book buyers and borrowers ‘buyer-borrowers’.” Showing that book buyers and readers are finding their own ways to navigate information and books during not only a pandemic, but a larger shift in publication formats. Giveg readers more choices rather than less.

See image below:  title:  Purchases by book format, 2019-2021 from Booknet Canada, 2021

Library branch visits for book buyers in 2021, by quarter from Booknet Canada, 2021


Detailed data from BookNet Canada shows a more nuanced approach to information and books. Some of the core findings are:

  • Most buyer-borrowers who visited the library (either in person or online) in 2021 did so to pick up holds (21%), to browse displays and shelves for books to borrow (15%), or to put books/materials on hold (12%).
  • In 2021, 47% of buyer-borrowers agreed that COVID-19 impacted their book borrowing.
  • Buyer-borrowers checked out an average of 4.9 books per month in 2021 — 3.2 print books, 1.2 ebooks, and 0.5 audiobooks.
  • The percentage of buyer-borrowers who checked out books in 2021 increased compared to 2020: 
  • 79% of buyer-borrowers borrowed a print book from a library in 2021, up from 72% in 2020; 
  • 50% of buyer-borrowers borrowed an ebook, up from 37% in 2020; and 
  • 40% of buyers-borrowers borrowed an audiobook, up from 27% in 2020.

According to BookNet Canada’s 2021 assessment, the top 10 reasons why buyers borrowed books rather than bought are:


Michelle Sisto

In her excellent 2022 article in Publishing Research Quarterly , Michelle Sisto, graduate of Pace University’s publishing program, explores the “complex history of e-lending, specifically between the Big Five publishers and public libraries.” The article carefully lays out the major issues, landmarks in this turbulent time, but also the complexity of relationships and decision-making needed on the part of all of the actors in this ongoing drama.

The question “Does e-lending negatively impact ebook sales?” went largely unanswered until 2020, with the rise of COVID. That March, publishing, book sales and libraries – all sides of the publishing industry – held their breath and tried adapting to the new normal, where ebooks were the only lending option for written material—and fortunately, both libraries and publishers were able to adapt during this turbulent time. Libraries even thrived—seeing unprecedented increases to elending – and publishers’ ebook sales increased for the first time since the mid-2010s.  

Sisto’s analysis of the fractious relationship between library lending and publishers  focused on the decade of the 2010s. “The Big Five, unsure of how to protect the financial prosperity of the disruptive technology, grappled with how to have ebooks in libraries without impacting their sales figures. Libraries, on the other hand, were simply trying to fulfill their social mission.”  

“Significantly, in an effort to help libraries,” Sisto found, “the Big Five publishers made favorable changes to their library ebook prices, policies, or catalogs, and helped libraries reach their communities digitally in a variety of other ways. These assistances allowed libraries to meet the new demand they saw for ebooks, and e-lending broke record numbers, while publishers’ ebook sales simultaneously increased. Thus, in a historically beautiful moment, both publishers and libraries came out of the COVID-19 library closures as winners.”


“As bestseller lists were posted in 2021,” Brenda K. Wiederhold noted in a recent article in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, “publishers began to notice a confounding trend: some of the most popular books on the lists were not new releases. In fact, many had already been on the market for several years. This defied conventional knowledge and experience. Typically, books sell best soon after publication, and barring a prestigious award or media scandal, interest dwindles as time passes. But the 2021 lists featured quite a few of these atypical bestsellers, and publishers soon identified the source: the new social media enclave referred to as BookTok.” 

“People use these platforms not to be narcissistic,” Wiederhold continues, “but rather to be seen by and to connect with their peers. In a way, with its widely accessible, authentic, and entertaining content, TikTok in general—and BookTok in particular—brings storytelling full circle, back to its oral roots. It is the gathering around the campfire, the town square play, the monthly living room book club reinvented for today’s world.”  And during a pandemic, with masking and social distance, BookTok’s role will be something to watch as we slowly move to a post-pandemic world.


A 2020 library ebook study analyzed use patterns, finding that they generally paralleled patterns for print monographs. Author Amy Fry’s study was based on the use of “nearly 100,000 ebooks over 10 years” in the OhioLINK  consortium and found that “ebook use follows use patterns established for print monographs. Ebooks do not drop in use dramatically as they age; the majority are used for many years.” 

For academics, “ebook rate of use is generally highest for subjects in the sciences and lowest for humanities subjects. Taken in the context of the literature about print obsolescence, the data reveals that the use of ebooks follows patterns established for print monographs, including that prior use predicts future use, use declines as titles age, and ebooks have their greatest chance of being used when they are new.”

Her basic finding was that, at least for academic libraries, “ebooks do not drop in use dramatically as they age; the majority are used for many years. “Ebook rate of use is generally highest for subjects in the sciences and lowest for humanities subjects.”   Her article carefully lays out the major issues, and some very interesting facts about the longevity of research access needed in the academy and by the broader public.  

Amy Fry

Amy Fry is currently Associate Professor, E-Resources Management Librarian, Acquisitions & Cataloging Services at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign  In 2020 she published a critical analysis of “Use patterns for ebooks: The effects of subject, age and availability on rate of use” in the Journal of Academic Librarianship. She shared her research findings and reflections with ATG in June.

NKH: Your research provides some very important facts/trends about the value of research materials. However, the study also found that “the use of ebooks follows patterns established for print monographs, including that prior use predicts future use, use declines as titles age, and ebooks have their greatest chance of being used when they are new.” For many working in the academy (or even public libraries) there is an assumption often that “new” books follow a narrow curve of high interest (top ten lists, etc.) after publication and use declines dramatically over time. However, especially in areas of history, literature and even areas of science, there is clearly a ‘long tail.’ Did you find this surprising?

AF: One article I read framed it this way: that the higher use new materials receive a “bump” they get from being new, and the lower use they sustain over time is actually their “real” use, or reflects their real interest. This urges us to see not that older materials are less valuable, but that their use when new is artificially high. I was in fact surprised, when doing my research, that older ebooks sustained as a high a level use as they did in OhioLINK, but when we take into account the relative ease with which these books can be accessed, it makes sense: for people who need information immediately, an older ebook is an excellent substitute for a newer book they might need to wait to receive.

NKH:  “Rate of use of ebook content is, in general, highest for subjects in the sciences and lowest for humanities subjects, but these patterns may differ greatly for individual user groups.” Again, there is an assumption that research is most popular/significant in journal articles, research reports, etc., soon after publication and the ‘long tail’ phenomenon (and the furtherance of research on topics) makes prior research of less demand. What factors did you find as you studied this? Could you give us a bit more information from your research on these “individual user groups”?

AF: I looked at the use of ebooks by subject at 11 individual Ohio institutions as well as in OhioLINK as a whole. Overall, STEM ebooks were used at the highest rate, but at individual campuses the opposite could be true. At my own institution at the time, Bowling Green State University, some of the subjects that had the lowest rate of use statewide were used at the highest rate, while ebooks in several STEM subjects were not well used at BGSU at all. This finding was not directly related to the age of the materials, however.

NKH: The Spring 2020 pandemic led to “library closures and the transition to a fully digital library lending” across the globe. How well do you believe libraries, their institutions and staff have been able to handle this unprecedented crisis that is inextricably tied to forces outside their control? 

AF: Academic libraries were remarkably well-equipped to meet the challenges of working in a completely virtual environment, and adapted quickly. Most had large ebook collections, full text databases, and majority-electronic journal collections. HathiTrust emergency access and generous free access from vendors like JSTOR and Bloomsbury helped fill some gaps. Despite that, the lack of access to print collections was highly disruptive, especially for disciplines that still have significant publishing output in print only, like music and art. Some lines of inquiry were, and are, simply impossible for researchers to pursue without print collections. I know librarians and researchers gained a new appreciation for online content because of the pandemic; I hope its early months also helped them recognize the valuable role print collections still play in the research landscape and the work we still need to do to preserve and create access to those collections.

NKH: Your research found many trends that seem to be the opposite of what so many assume, that this is some type of popular reading need and less for research. Of course, you are a research institution, still this is an important research finding. Have you had any interesting feedback on this article? As the pandemic continues, do you believe these trends will continue?

AF: I have not received very much feedback on my articles. I believe that, since the pandemic began, libraries’ interest in collecting ebooks has increased, and I believe it will continue to grow. Many academic libraries were already, before the pandemic, e-preferred for new monographic purchases, and there has been more cooperation among vendors and expanded ebook offerings from publishers since then, making it even easier to build ebook collections. I don’t think the pandemic was the “final nail in the coffin” for print, as some have suggested. But I think librarians, publishers and vendors are more committed to working together to provide flexible collection models that can respond to user needs. As long as we pay attention to trends in collection use for our own local users and maintain a curious, nuanced, open attitude to collecting, I think we will be able to successfully balance print and e, and access and preservation, for our users.

NKH: COVID, of course, has created major disruption across industries, education and life in general. None of this was planned nor anticipated, on the part of anyone. Decisions had to be made on-the-fly. James Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time comes to my mind, as we work to get through this crisis since we are still in the midst of this pandemic – and plan for a future that can easily include more major disruptions and crises. What lessons should publishers take away from this experience? Libraries? Governments that support creation and access to publicly available knowledge? Institutions of learning and other research organizations critically dependent on information, new knowledge and data?

AF: I hope that publishers and vendors found that their willingness to open systems and share content paid off in usage, trust, and even new business. I know my institution bought several products after we’d been able to use them for free for several months and document their value to our users. I hope content providers will continue to offer generous trial periods and evidence-based models for acquisition, because these help libraries build a case for funding new purchases and subscriptions. 

I hope libraries and academic institutions can see the value in better managing access to OA content locally and supporting OA initiatives like transformative agreements and subscribe-to-open projects. I hope that governments and content providers can facilitate solutions for access to copyrighted works during periods of emergency in ways that benefit researchers. We still need to learn new ways of working together and sharing information that prioritize health, safety, and economic and environmental justice. This will be the hardest lesson of the pandemic and will take the longest to learn – but this is why libraries and education institutions exist: in order to create the conditions necessary to develop and disseminate this new knowledge.

For Part 1 of Reading in the 21st Century, see HERE.

For Part 3 of Reading in the 21st Century, see HERE.

Nancy K. Herther is a writer, consultant and former librarian with the University of Minnesota Libraries   


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