‘I Can’t Afford to Buy All the Books I Read’


Reading is dead’ has been a refrain we’ve heard almost as much as ‘The book is dead’, but there’s little evidence to date that, like the book, reading, including leisure reading, is expiring any time soon. Of course, how we read is surely changing. We read text on screens not just for work and study, but increasingly for pleasure and interest. This is likely to have some effect on the way in which we read, and on what we read: whereas in the past ‘leisure reading’ may have conjured up thoughts of curling up with a paperback, nowadays it’s just as likely to be sampling a blog or a newsfeed on a ‘phone’ (though this could still involve curling up, perhaps). Whilst a good deal of this new content can be accessed for free, not all of it can, and this is where libraries come in—still. Whether online or print, fiction or non-fiction, public libraries offer their users copious amounts of content that they might not otherwise be able to access, simply because of budgetary constraints. Hence the title of this blog post, and a piece of research that I recently completed.

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In a survey I sent out to students in the Faculty of Arts and Education, I asked them about their leisure reading materials and activities and also if and how they used public libraries to support their leisure reading. Many of the students who responded were mature age and female, thus resembling the profile of working-age users of public libraries in some respects. In any case, a large number of respondents did use public libraries as a leisure reading source (187 to be precise). For many of these respondents, leisure reading was not something they would be giving up on any time soon. On the contrary, for quite a few of them it was a ‘vital’ activity, something which they couldn’t do without. Respondents cited several reasons why they read for pleasure: it often helped them relax, providing respite and escape from the stresses of modern life; at the same time, it could also offer valuable insights into, and new perspectives on, the world at large; additionally, it’s an enjoyable way to improve literacy skills.

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Respondents didn’t source their leisure reading materials from public library materials just because they were free, though this was a key reason. Other reasons commonly cited were the breadth and depth of the public library collections, and the ease with which both their print and online materials could be obtained. Interestingly, quite a few respondents said how they still enjoyed reading print materials, and that borrowing them from libraries was a more sustainable way of indulging in this pleasure—a reason that would have likely been cited more rarely a decade or two ago. Some respondents also mentioned how they appreciated the advice offered by library staff, and the ’reading-centric’ environment that the physical library provided. All in all, it is clear that for many, leisure reading is here to stay, or at least for as long as public libraries continue to support it.

The full write-up of this research is in:

Hider, Philip (2022)‘I Can’t Afford to Buy All the Books I Read’: What Public Libraries Offer Leisure Readers. Journal of the Australian Library & Information Association, 71 (2), 139-155.

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