Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Younger Americans’ Reading and Library Habits

Summary of findings

More than eight in ten Americans between the ages of 16 and 29 read a book in the past year, and six in ten used their local public library. At the youngest end of the spectrum, high schoolers in their late teens (ages 16-17) and college-aged young adults (ages 18-24) are especially likely to have read a book or used the library in the past 12 months. And although their library usage patterns may often be influenced by the requirements of school assignments, their interest in the possibilities of mobile technology may also point the way toward opportunities of further engagement with libraries later in life.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project has taken a special look at readers between the ages of 16 and 29 because interest in them is especially high in the library world and the publishing world. This report examines how they encounter and consume books in different formats. It flows out of a larger effort to assess the reading habits of all Americans ages 16 and older as e-books change the reading landscape and the borrowing services of libraries.1

The main findings in this report, including all statistics and quantitative data, are from a nationally-representative phone survey of 2,986 people ages 16 and older that was administered from November 16-December 21, 2011. This report also contains the voices and insights of an online panel of library patrons ages 16-29 who borrow e-books, fielded in the spring of 2012.

Among the main findings:

  • 83% of Americans between the ages of 16 and 29 read a book in the past year. Some 75% read a print book, 19% read an e-book, and 11% listened to an audiobook.
  • Among Americans who read e-books, those under age 30 are more likely to read their e-books on a cell phone (41%) or computer (55%) than on an e-book reader such as a Kindle (23%) or tablet (16%).
  • Overall, 47% of younger Americans read long-form e-content such as books, magazines or newspapers. E-content readers under age 30 are more likely than older e-content readers to say that they are reading more these days due to the availability of e-content (40% vs. 28%).
  • 60% of Americans under age 30 used the library in the past year. Some 46% used the library for research, 38% borrowed books (print books, audiobooks, or e-books), and 23% borrowed newspapers, magazines, or journals.
  • Many of these young readers do not know they can borrow an e-book from a library, and a majority of them express the wish they could do so on pre-loaded e-readers. Some 10% of the e-book readers in this group have borrowed an e-book from a library and, among those who have not borrowed an e-book, 52% said they were unaware they could do so. Some 58% of those under age 30 who do not currently borrow e-books from libraries say they would be “very” or “somewhat” likely to borrow pre-loaded e-readers if their library offered that service.

Among those in this under-30 age group, three distinct clusters emerge: high schoolers (ages 16 and 17), college-aged young adults (ages 18-24), and early-career adults (ages 25-29):

  • High schoolers (ages 16-17) are especially reliant on the library for their reading and research needs. They are more likely than other age groups to have used the library in the past year, especially to have checked out print books or received research assistance. In addition, they are more likely than others to get reading recommendations at the library. However, despite their greater use of their local public library, high schoolers are less likely than older age groups to say that the library is important to them and their family. Just over half consider the library “very important” or “somewhat important” to them and their families, compared with roughly two-thirds of older Americans. At the same time, these high school-aged respondents do offer some clues as to what other roles the library could play in their lives. While generally as likely to own e-book reading devices as older Americans, high schoolers are significantly more likely to say that they would be interested in checking out pre-loaded e-readers from their local public library if this service was offered.
  • College-aged adults (ages 18-24) show interesting shifts in their reading habits compared with high schoolers (ages 16-17). They have the highest overall reading rate of any age group, and exhibit an increased interest in e-books and audiobooks compared with younger readers. College-aged adults are more likely than high schoolers to purchase their books, but are also more likely to borrow books from friends and family.
  • Adults in their late twenties (ages 25-29) exhibit different patterns when compared with younger age groups. They are less likely to have read a book in the past year, and those who do read books are more likely to have purchased their most recent book. Yet, even as their reliance on their local public library dips, adults in their late twenties start to express a greater appreciation for libraries in general; almost three-quarters say that the library is important to them and their families.

General reading habits

According to our December 2011 national survey, Americans under age 30 are more likely than older adults to do reading of any sort (including books, magazines, journals, newspapers, and online content) for work or school, or to satisfy their own curiosity on a topic. About eight in ten say they read for these professional or educational reasons, more than older age groups. And about three-quarters of younger Americans say they read for pleasure or to keep up with current events.2

Some 78% of Americans ages 16 and older had read at least one book in any format in the previous 12 months, including 83% of those under age 30.3 High schoolers (ages 16-17) and college-aged adults (ages 18-24), along with adults in their thirties, are especially likely to have read a book in the past year, while adults ages 65 and older are the least likely to have read a book in that time span.

Looking at book reading by format, we find that 72% of Americans read at least one print book in the past year; 16% read at least one e-book; 11% listened to at least one audiobook. Additionally, some general patterns by age group emerged:

  • There are few differences between readers under age 30 and older adults when it comes to reading books in print, although readers over age 30 are slightly more likely to have read a print book in the past year than those ages 16-29 (93% vs 90%).
  • High school-aged readers (ages 16-17), along with readers over 65, are less likely than other age groups to have read an e-book in the past year.
  • Readers in their late twenties (ages 25-29) are somewhat more likely than other age groups to have listened to an audiobook.


As shown in previous reports, e-book reading is not confined to dedicated e-reading devices, such as e-readers or tablets.4 This is especially true among younger e-book readers. In fact, a majority of e-book readers under age 30 consume their e-books on a desktop or laptop computer; the second most popular method is by cell phone (41% read their e-books this way). Some 23% of e-book readers ages 16-29 read e-books on an e-reader like a Kindle or Nook, and just 16% read e-books on a tablet computer.

Among Americans who read a book in any format in the past year, 45% say they read a book “yesterday.” Looking more closely at format choice, those on the youngest and oldest ends of the spectrum—high schoolers, college-aged adults, and those ages 65 and older—are more likely than other age groups to say that they read a print book on the day prior to the survey.5 By comparison, adults in their late twenties, thirties, and forties are more likely to say that the book they read yesterday was in an e-book or audiobook format.

How e-content has affected younger Americans’ reading habits

Overall, 43% of Americans (and 47% of those between the ages of 16 and 29) read long-form e-content such as books, magazines or newspapers. Some 30% of these e-content readers (including 40% of those under age 30) say that they now spend more time reading than they used to due to the availability of e-content. Some 28% of e-content readers over age 30 say they are reading more now.

Many respondents from our online panel of young e-book borrowers discussed how they read more because of the increased availability of e-content. “I am reading more now that I have purchased an e-reader,” a college-aged panelist wrote. “I find that by having an e-reader I have developed a habit of reading in my spare time (it’s very convenient to take my e-reader with me) and I am discovering more books to read on my device,” he said. Other respondents mentioned how they read more books while traveling since they began reading e-books, or how they could read a few pages on their phone while waiting in line or between classes.

However, the young respondents on our e-book borrowing panel did not all enjoy reading e-books on every device at their disposal. A college-aged panelist wrote that while he uses his gadgets for web browsing and other activities, he only reads books on his e-reader—“I don’t like to read on computer screens similar to my tablet and computer monitors.” And many panelists did not necessarily prefer e-books to print in the first place, as a respondent in her late twenties described: “I am a very reluctant technology user. I only occasionally request e-books, as I prefer the overall experience of reading an actual book. It somehow feels more warm and personal.”

When to borrow, when to buy

When we asked book readers in our national survey how, in general, they prefer to get their books, we 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, just one in three audiobook listeners (32%) prefer to purchase audiobooks they want to listen to, while 61% prefer to borrow them. There were few differences in preferences between readers of different age groups. “It mainly depends on availability at the library and how badly I want to read the book ‘right now,’” and online panelist told us. “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.”

We also queried book readers in our national survey how they had obtained the most recent book they read (in any format). About half (48%) of readers said they had purchased their most recently read book, 24% said they had borrowed it from a friend or family member, and 14% said they borrowed it from a library.

High-school-aged readers 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 still more likely than many other age groups to have borrowed the last book they read from a friend.

Among e-book readers, there are no statistically significant differences between those ages 16-29 and those over age 30 regarding where they first turn for e-books; some 78% of e-book readers under age 30 look for e-books first at an online bookstore (compared with 75% of those over 30), while 16% of younger readers look first at the public library (compared with 11% of older respondents).

By contrast, our online panel of e-book borrowers usually preferred to borrow books, and were very particular about which books they chose to purchase. Purchased print books were often referred to as investments of sorts, chosen in order to re-read, share with others, or pass on to one’s children. “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 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 certain series, such as Harry Potter and Games of Thrones, he would sometimes purchase both the print and e-book editions.

Library use

According to our national survey, some 56% of all Americans ages 16 and older have used the library in the past year, including 60% of those under age 30:

  • 40% of those ages 16 and older used the library for research (including 46% of those under age 30)
  • 36% borrowed books in any format (including 38% of those under age 30)
  • 22% used the library to borrow newspapers, magazines, or journals (including 23% of those under age 30)

As shown in the table below, there are many striking differences across age groups. For instance, 72% of high schoolers (ages 16-17) used the library in the past year, making them by far the most likely age group to have done so. Adults ages 65 and older were the least likely to have used a library for any reason, with about half (49%) having done so in the past 12 months.

High schoolers were also most likely to have used the library for research purposes—55% used the library for research in the past year, compared with 40% of all Americans. And these 16-17 year-olds also led all other age groups in borrowing books, especially print books: 65% of high schoolers who read a print book in the past year had checked one out from a public library in that time period, compared with 48% of all print readers.

Yet while high schoolers led all other age groups in library use, their appreciation for these library services does not follow suit; almost half (45%) of high schoolers—and 37% of college-aged adults—say that the library is not important or “not too important” to them and their family.

How library patrons’ habits have changed since they began borrowing e-books

Younger e-book borrowers in our online panel had mixed views on how e-book borrowing had affected their library habits. A high school-aged rural respondent, for instance, wrote that since she started borrowing e-books, “I tend to go to the physical branch less often because if I can borrow a book in digital format, I can start reading it faster.” Another panelist wrote that while he preferred borrowing e-books to print books, he would visit the library when that was not possible: “I go to the library branch to search for books that I can’t get online, and I also go there to do some reading and discover any new books that the library has gotten in.”

Not everyone has seen an effect on their reading habits. “Nothing has changed so far. Even if I can borrow e-books from home I would still like to go and visit the library,” a woman in her late twenties told us. “There are many services and events provided by the library that I would like to be a part of.” Another wrote, “I pretty much got my Kindle only because the library started offering e-books to check out. I still love books in print and will pick a print book over an e-book if I have the option . . . I would say I go to the library only a slightly less than I used to.”

Very few young panelists said that they would like to see e-books replace print books entirely. “As much as I love using my Kindle, I would find it devastating if the library were to dramatically reduce its print collection,” a respondent in her late twenties told us, adding, “I love the feel of physical books.” Another panelist wrote: “Though e-books are important, we must keep an emphasis on our physical libraries as a community space and option for lower income and lower education neighborhoods who may not have access or knowledge of e-book devices and e-book use.”

Library patrons’ experiences with e-book borrowing

How they find out about e-books

The patrons who participated in our online panel generally said they had learned about e-book lending at either their library’s physical branch or through direct online communication from the library. Others simply noticed the option for e-books in online catalogues by chance. “I think I found out only because I regularly visit my library’s website to reserve books and search the catalog. I don’t think I ever saw it advertised anywhere,” another panelist in her late twenties wrote. “Maybe they could send out a mailer to let people know?”

[on the library’s website]

The checkout process

Overall, our younger online panelists found their libraries’ e-book check-out process to be relatively painless; although that is not to say they didn’t have suggestions for improvement. “The app is very easy to use and hassle free,” a college-aged panelist wrote. “I like that I can read on my phone or iPad, and my page will sync across devices automatically.” Many reported that they had no trouble searching for books in the system (although browsing was a different matter).

At the same time, some panelists were frustrated with the multiple log-in screens they are required to navigate when checking out e-books. “It would really be nice if we could check out and download in a few steps, rather than 6+ steps,” a college-aged respondent suggested. “It’s confusing for all the different devices and it would be nice if the process was the same for a Kindle, Nook, iPad, laptop, etc.”

Non-e-book borrowers

In our national survey, we also asked people who do not borrow e-books, including those who do not read them in general, whether they would be interested in certain resources at their local public library. These included classes on how to use e-readers and tablets, classes on how to borrow e-books from the library, and the ability to borrow e-readers pre-loaded with books they wanted to read.

The younger respondents in our national survey were as interested in classes on e-readers and e-book borrowing as older respondents, but they were particularly intrigued by the prospect of borrowing pre-loaded e-readers:

  • 58% of those under age 30 who do not currently borrow e-books from libraries—including 60% of high schoolers and college-aged adults—say they would be “very” or “somewhat” likely to borrow an e-reading device pre-loaded with a book they wanted to read (compared with 46% of all respondents).
  • 33% of those under age 30 say they would be “very” or “somewhat” likely to take a library class on how to download e-books onto handheld devices (compared with 32% of all respondents).
  • 31% of those under age 30 say they would be “very” or “somewhat” likely to take a course at a library in how to use an e-reader or tablet computer (compared with 31% of all respondents).

  1. All reports in this series can be found at:”
  2. For more information about Americans’ reading habits, including e-reading habits, see “The rise of e-reading” (2012).
  3. This includes print books, e-books, and audiobooks.
  4. “The rise of e-reading” (2012), Part 4:
  5. As the national 2011 survey was in the field from November 16-December 21, 2011, the number of college-aged students who said they were reading a book “yesterday” may be influenced by final exams and holiday breaks.

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