Reading habits shift to e-books

Photographs by Grace Beahm/Staff Burke Middle School eighth-grader Jahsai Fisher reads on his iPad in the school library Tuesday.

With the ease of electronic downloading, Burke Middle School eighth-grader Jahsai Fisher says he can read more than 100 books a year.

And his reading list isn’t fluff: “The Art of War” and “Where the Red Fern Grows” are two classics currently listed on his iPad.

“It’s a lot easier to concentrate,” Fisher said Tuesday in the Burke library, pointing to the benefits of a mobile library.

Fisher’s route to reading is becoming the rule rather than the exception. A newly released study from the Pew Research Center indicates book reading is not an endangered branch of the “Three R’s,” as pessimists might say.

Instead, it is joining the global shift toward greater and more expanded use through electronic access.

Among the Pew findings: While more than eight in 10 Americans slightly older than Fisher — the 16- to 29-year-old demographic — reported reading a book in the past year, electronic methods to accessing those stories are increasingly popular.

For example, of those who read electronically, most were more likely to use a cell phone or a computer (a combined 96 percent).

The findings, meant to show how people read and the role of libraries in their lives, come from a survey of 2,986 Americans age 16 and older who were interviewed last year.

But locally, Charleston area educators say the results vindicate the growing shift toward more e-access for all students at all reading levels, to help them explore fiction, non-fiction and other databases.

“We have seen a whole shift in research,” Connie Dopierala, media services administrator for the Charleston County School District, said of the district’s growth and proven worth of e-services.

Based on the access tracking Dopierala does to follow student habits, she’s seen an 80 percent rise in the district’s e-use functions on weekends, holidays and after school — hours when traditionally most students are gone from the classroom. “It’s anytime, anywhere learning,” a key benefit of e-reading, she said.

Charleston isn’t alone in promoting e-books, but it is by far the most advanced district locally, spending more than $500,000 on digital resources in the past few years. The district has more 14,000 digital content titles available for students to download, Dopierala said.

Elsewhere, Dorchester District 2 reported about 600 online library titles available for its students with the “Hunger Games” story among its most popular student downloads.

“Movies definitely push our titles,” said Shelly Bostwick, curriculum technology facilitator for the district.

Dorchester District 4 has an e-book program, but it is in its infancy, with nine titles available, said Director of Technology Elixzina Goodwin.

The Berkeley County School District did not provide a count Tuesday of how large its catalog is, but spokeswoman Susan Haire said e-books have become popular enough that student-started e-book reading clubs have sprouted up.

Outside of school access, the study also found that many young readers don’t know they can borrow an e-book from a library, while a majority said they wish they had access via pre-loaded e-readers.

Rodger Smith, manager of library collections at the Charleston County Library, said there are about 4,000 titles in the e-book collection and about 15 percent of the focus goes for young adult or juvenile reads.

Some of the problems associated with not getting more juvenile-themed copies, he said, is that publishers don’t like to deal with libraries on e-copies of their popular stories or best-sellers.

Also, many lower-age story books are heavy with graphics and illustrations that cannot be easily seen on something as small as a phone screen.

While the Pew group was looking at the current trend, some students already are way ahead in their use of e-technology, saying it doesn’t take a survey to show how tuned in young people are.

Elizabeth Burdette, a junior at the College of Charleston, has her tablet fully loaded with books she reads for fun (some of which are free downloads), and some of the textbooks she needs for school.

For her, it’s all about the simplicity that e-technology is bringing.

“I’m not stuck carrying around a lot,” she said.