Physical library loans fall as e-books gain popularity

A section at Sengkang Public Library which combines a book display and an interactive screen showing e-book titles. The number of physical items checked out from public libraries fell by more than 15 per cent from around 38 million in 2012 to about 3
A section at Sengkang Public Library which combines a book display and an interactive screen showing e-book titles. The number of physical items checked out from public libraries fell by more than 15 per cent from around 38 million in 2012 to about 32 million last year.ST PHOTO: DAVE LIM

Travel guides top English books borrowed by adults; business, self-help e-books popular

Travel guides made up four out of the top five most-borrowed English books by adult users last year, behind Russell Lee's The Almost Complete Collection Of True Singapore Ghost Stories, said the National Library Board (NLB).

This is an increase from five years ago when Lee's book topped the list but only two travel books made the top five, along with "chick-lit" novel Mini Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella (No. 3) and Dan Brown's thriller The Lost Symbol (No. 5).

But the growing popularity of guides on Japan, South Korea and Taiwan comes even as fewer readers are borrowing from libraries.

The number of physical items checked out - these include magazines and multimedia material - fell by more than 15 per cent from around 38 million in 2012 to about 32 million last year.

"This correlates to the falling usage of library services among certain groups of users, especially the adults," an NLB spokesman said.

Popular genres for adults have remained largely stable over the past five years, and include staples such as travel and romance.

But favourites vary across languages - business books consistently do well in English, but less so in Chinese, Malay and Tamil, where cookery is more popular. Borrowers of Malay and Tamil books also like tomes on spirituality and religion - the second-most popular category for adult readers in those languages, behind general fiction.

Business, self-help and romance e-books are in demand more than their print counterparts, the NLB said, with the top download being Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built.

  • LAST YEAR'S MOST POPULAR ENGLISH BOOKS

  • ADULTS (aged 17 and above)

    1. The Almost Complete Collection Of True Singapore Ghost Stories (Russell Lee)

    2. Travel Guide: Tokyo (Insight Guides)

    3. Japan (Insight Guides)

    4. Lonely Planet: Korea (Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit)

    5. The Rough Guide To Taiwan (Rough Guides)

    YOUNG ADULTS (aged 13 to 17)

    1. The Fault In Our Stars (John Green)

    2. The House Of Hades (Rick Riordan) 3. Russian Roulette (Anthony Horowitz)

    4. The Mark Of Athena (Rick Riordan)

    5. The Maze Runner (James Dashner)

    CHILDREN (aged seven to 12)

    1. Thea Stilton And The Secret City (Geronimo Stilton)

    2. Esio Trot (Roald Dahl)

    3. The Twits (Roald Dahl)

    4. Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot vs The Voodoo Vultures From Venus (Dav Pilkey)

    5. Thea Stilton And The Mystery In Paris (Geronimo Stilton)

    SOURCE: NATIONAL LIBRARY BOARD

Assistant Professor Andrew Duffy, who teaches journalism at Nanyang Technological University, said the popularity of travel books "may be an older-person phenomenon" fuelled by those who finally have the means to travel - or the pattern could also be due to the "armchair traveller".

Madam Kuan Ai Eng, 62, a tuition centre manager who visits libraries twice or thrice a month, said she tends to browse travel guides "to know more about the world".

Prof Duffy said: "Even if you don't actually go to the place, people are talking about it. So people are possibly reading these guide books to be part of the conversation."

Library borrowing patterns can be influenced by current events.

In 2015, when Mr Lee Kuan Yew died, the most-borrowed English e-book was The Singapore Story: Memoirs Of Lee Kuan Yew, while popular print books for readers aged seven to 12 included Growing Up With Lee Kuan Yew (No. 1) and A Boy Named Harry (No. 2).

Last year, an NLB study on adults’ reading habits found that close to three-fifths of the 69% of adults who read at least one book in the past 12 months, out of the more than 3,500 survey respondents, head to libraries for books.

As expected, the number of digital loans has been climbing steadily in the past few years, said the NLB spokesman.

Still, the borrowing decline was not wholly offset by the rise in e-book use, which grew from 7.5 million loans, page views, downloads and checkouts in 2012, to 11.7 million last year.

The spokesman added: "As the purchase of books becomes easier and more affordable through online stores, the preference to purchase rather than borrow books is a likely reason for the decrease in physical library loans."

Assistant Professor Loh Chin Ee, from the National Institute of Education's English language and literature department, said her ongoing research with secondary school students has found that their parents typically read newspapers, non-fiction books and magazines. This is at odds with how students enjoy storybooks and read for pleasure.

Experts said that as people here get older, they tend to become "functional" readers who focus on gleaning information - a trend accompanied by a rising preference for easily digestible reading material.


Correction note: This article has been edited for clarity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2017, with the headline 'Physical library loans fall as e-books gain popularity'. Print Edition | Subscribe