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 1 in 5 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 3 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 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 may 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 over 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, cell phone 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.
Goggins said a key trend to watch would be libraries' success, with publishers' cooperation, in lending e-books, which he called crucial to fulfilling their historical role in disseminating information as widely as possible.
That's also a concern of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which financed the Pew study as part of a three-year look into e-reading, libraries, and the Internet.
"We believe that information access is critical to education and economic development," said Karen Archer Perry, senior program officer at the Gates Foundation. Perry said the foundation had spent more than $600 million on libraries since its founding - and, in fact, made libraries its first investment.
"When we first started to invest in libraries 15 years ago, one of the first questions that people asked was whether computers belonged in libraries," Perry said.
That, at least, is a settled question.
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