Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Younger Americans’ Reading and Library Habits

Part 2: Where young people discover and get their books

A portion of our survey looked at how American book readers discover and procure books. Generally, book readers of all age groups depend most on family, friends, and co-workers for book recommendations—some 68% of Americans under age 30 find out about books this way, as well as 64% of older adults. However, we do also find some variance associated with age, as detailed below.

High schoolers (ages 16-17) stand out as the age group most likely to get reading recommendations from a library or librarian (including a library website). Some 36% of high schoolers get recommendations from this source, significantly more than older age groups.11

Overall, high schoolers and college-aged adults are generally less likely than adults ages 30-64 to get reading recommendations from an online bookstore or other website; however, high schoolers and college-aged adults are about as likely as other adults under 65 to get recommendations from family members, friends, or co-workers, or in-person from bookstore staff.

An online panelist in her late twenties explained how she used a variety of sources to find e-books to read: “I love sharing my ratings and when I’ve finished a book with my friends on social media through the ‘share’ feature on my Kindle. I also enjoy downloading samples of books to help me decide whether or not to buy or borrow from the library. I am a heavy user of and use it to track what I’m reading, have read and want to read and share recommendations with friends.”

“For nonfiction, I get books that are recommended by my friends, or browse the bestseller stack at a bookstore (then pirate an e-book online or borrow it from the library),” a college-aged online panelist wrote. “For fiction, I’ll read everything by one author before finding a new author.”

The way readers prefer to obtain their books in general: To buy or to borrow?

We asked the book readers in our survey how, in general, they prefer to obtain their books, and found that a majority of print readers (54%) and readers of e-books (61%) say they prefer to purchase their own copies of these books rather than borrow them from somewhere else. In contrast, most audiobook listeners prefer to borrow their audiobooks; just one in three audiobook listeners (32%) prefer to purchase audiobooks they want to listen to, while 61% prefer to borrow them.

Among print readers, younger respondents are generally no more or less likely than older age groups to say they prefer to purchase their books, the most common response from print readers. However, those under age 30 are more likely to prefer to borrow than older adults (who are more likely to not have a preference). Similarly, there are no significant differences in preferences between age groups among audiobook listeners or among e-book readers.

“It mainly depends on availability at the library and how badly I want to read the book ‘right now.’ If the queue for the library e-book is too long, I’ll just buy it. If it’s a reference book that I’m only using temporarily, I’ll borrow it, but if it’s something that I foresee needing in the future, I’ll buy,” an online panelist told us.

Our online panel of e-book borrowers generally preferred to borrow books, and our respondents were often very particular about which books they chose to purchase. Purchased print books especially were often referred to as investments of sorts, chosen in order to re-read, share with others, or pass on to one’s children. A respondent in her late twenties wrote, “If I read a borrowed book and LOVE it and wish to own it for future re-reads I will buy it. I also generally buy special edition copies of classics (for example, Penguin’s Hardcover Classics or Puffin’s Children’s classics).” Another said that she might choose to purchase “a particularly dear or beautiful book,” such as the books of the Harry Potter series.

“I only buy brand new print books if it’s a series I collect, or a book that has special meaning,” a college-aged panelist in a large metro area wrote. “I will often buy older books from a used book store so that I can read them and sell them back. I buy e-books if it’s a book that I’m looking forward to but not necessarily one that I need to add to a collection.” He added that with some series, such as Harry Potter and Games of Thrones, he would purchase both the print and e-book editions.


One college-aged online panelist will browse bookstores for inspiration, but turns to his library for the actual books. “When I go to bookstores I always take pictures of the book so that I can look for it later in my library,” he wrote. A rural reader in her late twenties has another method: “If the library doesn’t have all of the books in a series or by a favorite author, I may look for them at a used bookstore,” she said.

Where did the most recent book come from?

We also asked book readers how they had obtained the most recent book they read (in any format). Among younger Americans ages 16-29 who read a book in the past year, 45% said they had purchased it, 24% said they had borrowed it from a friend or family member, and 17% said they borrowed it from a library. Some 13% said they had obtained it some other way.12

High-school-age readers (ages 16-17) were more likely to have borrowed the last book they read from the library than they are to have bought it, a pattern that soon reverses for older adults—almost six in ten readers in their late twenties said they had purchased their last book. And while a plurality of college-aged readers (ages 18-24) purchased the last book they read, they are also more likely than many other age groups to have borrowed the last book they read from a friend.

Asked about the last book he read, one college-aged online panelist said, “It was the second novel in a series that was released digitally at midnight, and I had to read it ASAP, so I bought the digital copy (via iBooks) instead of waiting for it on the library’s waiting list for the physical copy.”

Another online respondent working his way through a series had a less legitimate method: “I read it as an e-book on my laptop. I pirated it.”

A closer look at e-books

When they want to read a particular e-book, e-book readers under age 30 have the same general habits as older readers. Some 78% of e-book readers ages 16-29 said that they usually look for it first at an online bookstore or website, and 16% said they tend to look first at their public library.

  1. We did not specifically ask about the role of professional book critics as a source of book discovery because we assumed they would be a source that factored into all these options.
  2. Among all Americans ages 16 and older, 48% of readers said they had purchased it, 24% said they had borrowed it from a friend or family member, and 14% said they borrowed it from a library. Some 13% said they obtained it some other way.
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