I recently published a post on how the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be affecting publishing. While that article focused on publishers, we now have some interesting data on how it has affected libraries, thanks to NPR (many thanks to my author friend, Elle Boca, for alerting me to this).
How libraries are dealing with new demand during the pandemic
Across the country, libraries have seen demand skyrocket for their electronic offerings, but librarians say they continue to worry about the digital divide and equality in access — not to mention the complicated questions that must be answered before they can reopen for physical lending.
“Since the library closed on March 16, we’ve had about seven thousand people register for library cards,” says Richard Reyes-Gavilan of the District of Columbia Public Libraries. “We’ve had over 300,000 books borrowed since mid-March, which is astounding considering that our collections are limited.”
By the library’s accounting, that’s 37% higher than the same period in 2019.
Weekly library e-book lending across the country has increased by nearly 50 percent.
Audiobook check-outs are also up 14% — not quite as large a shift, likely because fewer people are in their cars commuting to work.
Has pandemic changed reading?
Nationally, there’s been a jump in titles checked out virtually across topics, but demand for children’s e-books has more than doubled.
- E-book checkouts for adult fiction across the U.S. have grown by more than a third, and
- Young adult fiction has grown by more than 50 percent.
- There have been more checkouts of children’s books than adult nonfiction.
Are people reading differently?
So patrons seem to be reading more, but are they reading differently?
Library categorization is notoriously messy, but numbers indicate that readers aren’t radically shifting their tastes on the grim/fluffy axis. The top categories have remained remarkably stable through 2020, led by thrillers, romance, “women sleuths,” and literary fiction.
That said, some sub-sub-genres are showing signs of our collective psychological strain: Within the self-help category, “motivation” and “happiness” titles have seen an increased number of checkouts, as have books on pandemics and race relations.
Libraries have also reacted to the closures by transitioning events to virtual spaces. DC’s libraries added a chat service allowing readers to ask a librarian questions over the phone or the web. It also launched its “one city, one book” program online by offering free digital access to Elizabeth Acevedo’s With the Fire On High, including a virtual talk by the author at the end of the campaign. And it’s been holding Facebook-based storytimes with hundreds of participants.
How libraries will adapt in the long run is still unclear. Digital titles are often three to five times more expensive than physical books, and unlike physical books (which can be borrowed hundreds of times) e-book licenses are typically capped at a short time period or limited number of checkouts (or both) before they must be renewed.
As a result, if this burst in digital lending is sustained, it could be a financial problem for cash-strapped libraries. Seattle’s libraries have been able to transfer funding to e-books while branches are closed for in-person borrowing, but at some point they’ll need to start repurchasing print materials again.
Maybe this is an opportunity for savvy Indies who are looking to make their titles available to libraries?
Check out the full post on NPR for more about the essential services libraries provide to the communities.