E-reader revolution quickly gathers speed

  • Article by: JEFF GELLES , Philadelphia Inquirer
  • Updated: April 5, 2012 - 9:04 PM

More than one in five Americans are reading books in electronic form.

Here's what's happening on the plugged-in side of the digital divide: an extraordinarily swift change in how people are reading books and other media, driven by the rapid acceptance of tablets and e-readers.

More than one in five Americans say they have read a book in electronic form during the past 12 months, according to a study published Thursday by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Nearly three in 10 adult Americans now own at least one device designed for electronic reading -- either an e-reader such as the Amazon Kindle or a tablet computer such as Apple's iPad.

Those figures may not surprise anyone who recently has ridden a train or been on a plane, visited a campus or spent time in a public space. But Pew, whose focus on e-reading is part of a broader look at how technology is tearing away at and reweaving so much of the modern social and intellectual fabric, is documenting trends that herald profound change -- and large challenges -- for society, according to Lee Rainie, director of the Internet project. "The book has been the fundamental unit of transmitting knowledge for half a millennium," Rainie said.

Some of Pew's more remarkable statistics:

The fraction of people who owned an e-reader, and the fraction who owned a tablet, both nearly doubled in the recent holiday season, from 10 percent in December to 19 percent in January.

E-book readers say they are reading more -- an average of 24 books during the past 12 months, compared with 15 books for non-electronic readers.

Specialized devices aren't the only place people read e-books or other long-form writing, such as magazine articles. Using its broadest definition of electronic content, Pew says about 43 percent of Americans read digital content during the last year on an e-reader, tablet, cellphone or computer.

One clear factor is increasing affordability, common with electronic technologies. Amazon now sells a basic Kindle for well under $80.

"These devices are more accessible to more people just because the price is lower," said Sean Goggins, assistant professor at Drexel University's College of Information Science and Technology in Philadelphia.

Goggins said a key trend to watch will be libraries' success, with publishers' cooperation, in lending e-books, which he called crucial to fulfilling libraries' historical role in disseminating information as widely as possible.

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