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Borrow, Buy, Read: Library Use and Book Buying in Canada

February 26, 202026 February 2020

Reading / writing / publishing and literacy

BookNet Canada

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This report uses multiple sources to explore the relationship between library use and book buying in Canada, noting that “contrary to popular belief, Canadian libraries… are not in competition with book retailers; in fact, libraries are known to help increase book sales”.

The findings are based on:

  • Quarterly consumer surveys fielded to a representative sample of 14,159 English-speaking adults across Canada in 2018, with questions about “book discovery, book purchasing, and library use”. (Margin of error: 0.83 percentage points, but the report does not provide a confidence level, usually expressed as “19 times out of 20”).
  • Annual leisure survey: 750 respondents in 2018, with questions about “book-related habits, library use, and how they discover and acquire books”. (Margin of error for “readers”, comprising 78% of the total sample: 3.58 percentage points, again with no confidence level).
  • Six months of data from BookNet Canada’s LibraryData service, a “library circulation tool that examines loans, holds, renewals, books on order, and collection holdings data in Canadian libraries”.
  • 2018 data gathered by BookNet Canada’s SalesData service, which “tracks print sales for an estimated 85% of the Canadian English-language trade book market”.

The consumer surveys found that 28% of Canadian adults borrowed at least one book from the library in 2018, with average of 3.3 books borrowed per person during the year. Print books still dominate among borrowers: of all books checked out, 82% were in print format, 13% were ebooks, and 5% were audiobooks. Demographically, the survey found that 58% of borrowers are female-identifying, 51% are university graduates, and 47% live in an urban area.

The 21% of Canadian adults who purchased at least one book in 2018 bought an average of 2.8 books each during the year. Eight percent of Canadians both borrowed and bought a book during the year. These individuals were very active in both areas in 2018, with an average of 3.9 books borrowed and 3.0 books bought during the year. The consumer surveys also found that 59% of Canadians neither bought nor borrowed a book in 2018.

The leisure survey found that 78% of respondents read or listened to at least one book in the past year (referred to as “readers” in the report). Among all readers, library browsing was “the fourth most popular way readers generally discover books”. Among the 80% of readers who had borrowed a book from a library, browsing through library collections (selected by 46%) was second only to word-of-mouth recommendations (48%).

Print books are still the most popular format for book readers or listeners: 90% of leisure survey respondents read a print book in 2018, compared with 50% who read an ebook and 34% who listened to an audiobook.

Regarding the frequency of reading print books, 20% of readers do so daily, 22% several times a week, 15% weekly, 17% between one and three times per month, 23% less than once a month, and 4% rarely.

Regarding genres, the findings from the LibraryData service found that public libraries reported the most popular subjects as juvenile and young adult (48% of loans), adult fiction (27%) and adult non-fiction (25%). The most popular subjects in the retail market, reported via the SalesData service, were juvenile and young adult (39% of market share), adult non-fiction (34%), and adult fiction (26%).

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