Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Reading Habits in Different Communities

Summary of Findings

Reading is foundational to learning and the information acquisition upon which people make decisions. For centuries, the capacity to read has been a benchmark of literacy and involvement in community life. In the 21st Century, across all types of U.S. communities, reading is a common activity that is pursued in myriad ways.

As technology and the digital world expand and offer new types of reading opportunities, residents of urban, suburban, and rural communities at times experience reading and e-reading differently. In the most meaningful ways, these differences are associated with the demographic composition of different kinds of communities — the age of the population, their overall level of educational attainment, and the general level of household income.1

Several surveys by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project reveal interesting variations among communities in the way their residents read and use reading-related technology and institutions:

Book readers: Some 78% of Americans ages 16 and older say they read a book in the past 12 months. Urban (80%) and suburban (80%) residents are especially likely to have read at least one book in the past year. While rural residents are somewhat less likely to have read a book in the past year (71%), the book readers in rural areas read as many books as their counterparts in cities and suburbs.

Purposes for reading: Most of those ages 16 and older read books for pleasure, and that is especially true of suburban readers: 82% of suburbanites read for pleasure, compared with 79% of urban residents and 76% of rural residents. Urban residents (80%) and suburban dwellers (79%) are also especially likely to read to keep up with current events. Some 73% of rural residents do that. More than three-quarters of suburban residents (77%) read to research topics that interest them, compared with 74% of urban residents and 70% of rural residents. Finally, 57% of suburbanites and 58% of city dwellers read for school or work, compared with 47% of rural residents who do that.

Americans and libraries: The majority of Americans ages 16 and older (58%) have a library card and even more (69%) say the library is important to them and their families. Some 71% of city dwellers say the library is important to them and 59% have library cards — and 69% of suburban residents say the library is important and 61% have library cards. At the same time, 62% of rural residents say the library is important and 48% have library cards.

Book recommendations: Family and friends are the primary source of book discovery for Americans 16 and older, especially so for suburban (66%) and urban residents (66%). Some 60% of rural residents say they get book recommendations from family and friends. Similarly, city dwellers (25%) and suburbanites (24%) are more likely than rural residents (18%) to have gotten recommendations from book stores they visit. Residents of all three kinds of communities are equally likely to say librarians and library websites are sources of book recommendations.

Newspaper and journal readers: Some 58% of those ages 16 and older say they regularly read newspapers. There are not noteworthy differences across communities in the numbers of people who regularly read newspapers. But suburban residents (57%) and urban dwellers (56%) are more likely to say they at times read their newspapers on handheld devices than rural residents (45%). When it comes to magazines and journals, 52% of the suburbanites ages 16 and older say they read them regularly, compared with 47% of urban dwellers and 44% of rural residents. Among those who read magazines and journals, 36% of urban readers and 33% of suburban readers read their magazines and journals at times on handheld devices. That compares with 24% of rural readers who read magazines and journals that way.

Preferences for e-books vs. print books: Some 14% of readers read an e-book and a printed book in the past year. Those book readers in dual platforms were asked which type of book is better for different reading activities such as sharing books with others, reading in bed, reading with a child, or reading while traveling.  Generally, urban readers in both formats are more likely to prefer e-books for many reading activities, while rural readers who have read in both formats tend to prefer print.

Some other factors stand out: Urban residents are more likely than suburban readers to say they are reading more because of availability of digital format and they are the most likely to prefer e-books over print for many reading activities. Among non e-readers, urban residents are the most likely to express interest in classes to learn about e-book related features of the public library. Suburban residents are more likely than rural residents to read magazines or journals regularly.  Residents of the suburbs are more likely than urban residents to have used their library to borrow print or audiobooks in the past 12 months and they are more likely then rural residents to express interest in using e-book readers that are already loaded with books from the library. Rural residents are in most ways similar to readers and library users in other kinds of communities, though they are a bit less likely to have read a book in the past 12 months or be as avidly engaged with their local library.

The Pew Internet surveys also show that book readers in all kinds of communities are similar in how much they read, the format they use for getting content (print, audio, electronic books, newspapers) and whether they read “yesterday” or on a “typical day.”  They also express similar preferences for borrowing or buying print, audio, or electronic books. They also show no notable variation in the format of their most recently read book.  And there are few differences in the e-reading behaviors among those in different communities who own those devices.

Statistical modeling shows that the biggest factors at play when it comes to different reading habits are people’s ages, their level of education, and their household income. The type of community in which people live is not an independent predictor of their reading behavior or their activities at libraries. In other words, no matter where they live, people of similar ages and similar socio-economic profiles read and engage their libraries at roughly the same level. To the degree that there is variance among the reading styles in communities, those differences are associated with the demographic makeup of these communities, not because there is something unique about rural residence, or urban residence, or being a suburbanite.

Thus, the factors that characterize reading in urban communities emerge from the fact that residents of these communities are relatively young and more likely to be African-American and Latino, compared with suburban or rural residents. Urban dwellers are also most likely to be unemployed or students and to report lower household income.

In contrast, suburban residents tend to be middle-aged, have higher income than residents of other types of communities, and are more likely to be employed full time.

Rural residents are older than those living in other types of communities (rural residents are particularly likely to be ages 50 to 64).  They are also the most likely to report being retired or disabled, and to have overall educational attainment of a high school diploma or less. Rural communities are also disproportionately white compared with other community types.

Still, some of the realities of rural life beyond demographics might be a factor in the issues we are exploring here. For instance, rural areas have less access to broadband connectivity and probably have fewer book stores proportionally than urban and suburban areas. Those factors could affect the way rural residents think about reading and books and where to acquire them.

We present these results because reading differences in different communities are important for libraries to understand because they function in geographic spaces. We focus on community types in the hope that the findings will be useful to communities as they ponder the role of their libraries and contemplate the future of reading, access to knowledge, the process of learning, and where technology fits into all that.

About the research

These are just some of the findings from a series of nationally representative telephone surveys of Americans. They were conducted in English and Spanish, and included both landline and cell phone samples. The main survey of 2,986 Americans ages 16 and older was conducted November 16 – December 21, 2011, and focused on the new e-reading environment and people’s habits and preferences where digital and print content are concerned. This work was underwritten by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Two additional nationally representative telephone surveys were conducted between January 5 – 8 and January 12 – 15, 2012 to see the extent to which adoption of e-book reading devices (both tablets and e-readers) might have grown during the 2011 holiday gift-giving season, and some of those figures are reported here.2 Also, Pew Internet’s Winter Tracking Survey (fielded January 20 – February 19, 2012) repeated questions from the first survey about the incidence of book reading in the previous 12 months to determine if there were any changes resulting from the sharp increase in device owners over the holiday season.3

Throughout the report, all data cited are from the initial November 16 – December 21, 2011 survey unless otherwise specified.


The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project is an initiative of the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes, and trends shaping America and the world. The Pew Internet Project explores the impact of the internet on children, families, communities, the work place, schools, health care and civic/political life. The Project is nonpartisan and takes no position on policy issues. Support for the Project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. More information is available at

Advisors for this research

A number of experts have helped Pew Internet in this research effort:

Larra Clark, American Library Association, Office for Information Technology Policy Mike Crandall, Professor, Information School, University of Washington Allison Davis, Senior Vice President, GMMB Catherine De Rosa, Vice President, OCLC LaToya Devezin, American Library Association Spectrum Scholar and librarian, Louisiana Amy Eshelman, Program Leader for Education, Urban Libraries Council Sarah Houghton, Director, San Rafael Public Library, California Mimi Ito, Research Director of Digital Media and Learning Hub, University of California Humanities Research Institute Patrick Losinski, Chief Executive Officer, Columbus Library, Ohio Jo McGill, Director, Northern Territory Library, Australia Dwight McInvaill, Director, Georgetown County Library, South Carolina Bobbi Newman, Blogger, Librarian By Day Carlos Manjarrez, Director, Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Institute of Museum and Library Services Johana E. Orellana-Cabrera, American Library Association Spectrum Scholar and librarian at City of Irvine (CA) Public Libraries Mayur Patel, Vice President for Strategy and Assessment, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Sharman Smith, Executive Director, Mississippi Library Commission Francine Fialkoff, former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal

Disclaimer from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: This report is based on research funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The findings and conclusions contained within are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

  1. The area where each respondent lives is defined by U.S. government classifications according to the respondent’s home ZIP Code.
  2. Results from these surveys will be referred to as “January omnibus data” where they are cited.
  3. Results from this survey will be referred to as “Winter Tracking data” where they are cited.
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