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Ebook Convenience Trumps Print Book Preference in Post-COVID Academic Libraries

 Do students prefer print books to e-books? Richard Carter from the University of Toronto contemplates the differing messages in the literature as well as the picture that emerges from student behaviour.

By: Richard Carter

A photograph of a rectangular building with many rows of windows and a banner that says "Kelly".
The John M. Kelly Library at the University of Toronto

According to research, students prefer print books to e-books. Yet  academic library trends1 show they borrow fewer every year.

With the Internet ingrained in modern life, it is tempting to assume students favour e-books over their papery cousins, but a recent study suggests print is more popular than you might think. Diane Mizrachi and Alicia M. Salaz, in a study of US and UK students published last year in the Journal of Academic Librarianship, reported that while some students said they loved digital reading, most preferred print2. Moreover they said they read better—more deeply and with better understanding—when poring over paper. Freed from distractions such as links, notifications, and multiple browser tabs, they can devote their senses to a page.

Mizrachi and Salaz suspect being forced to use e-books and screens exclusively during the pandemic may have turned many students off e-reading. Still, although the pandemic prompted more electronic reading among students – because they had little choice – it didn’t alter the pre-COVID preference for paper. Mizrachi and Salaz’s findings echo recent studies from the UK, Canada, and Indonesia3: when reading for fun or in-depth understanding, students say they want print.

But there’s a catch. What they actually do is different.

A Clash Between Attitudes and Behaviour

“People think it sounds better to say they use print,” says Noel McFerran, the Theology Librarian at the John M. Kelly Library, but the idea people truly prefer print books now, he says, is nonsense.

Researchers at Seton Hall University Libraries reported a 37% drop in print book-lending between 2015 and 20184, while print book circulation at the University of Toronto Libraries has been sinking over the past decade. In 2010, the Kelly Library lent or renewed books 130,000 times; last year, 35,000 times.

Noel has been buying e-books for the past seven years to support teaching and research at the University of St. Michael’s College Faculty of Theology in Toronto. E-books, he says, are here to stay.

“People want the book immediately,” Noel says. “If we could deliver the book to people in their home within two minutes, people might use the print version.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit three years ago the University of Toronto’s library buildings, forced to close, prompted students and faculty to rummage for sources at home. E-books, once an extra, were a staple.

The university first began buying e-books in the early 2000s and now subscribes to more than 3.5-million. These account for almost a quarter of the University’s 16-million books, and while it’s clear e-books have been encroaching on their print counterparts for years, COVID-19 has prompted universities to pursue e-books even more doggedly. According to a survey conducted by Choice, a research body affiliated with the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), more than 70% of librarians say the pandemic has prompted them to buy more e-books5.

One benefit of e-books is breadth. Without having to go to a physical library, students can glance through a wide variety of sources quickly.

“I’m very much more comfortable reading a print book,” says Callie Callon, who teaches theology at the Toronto School of Theology and serves as the St. Michael’s Research Officer. Despite her taste for hardcovers and paperbacks, Callie admits she found e-books a boon during the pandemic for her research and teaching. They offered freedom. She could search within e-books and download promising chapters to scrutinize later.

Noel wonders how the ease and efficiency of online reading will affect scholarship.

“Quicker is not necessarily better,” Noel says. “Sometimes, we just need to spend time reflecting and meditating and mulling over the things that we’ve read. And if the search process takes longer, if the reading takes longer, that’s not necessarily bad. There’s stuff going on in our heads all the time. And if we do things quickly, how does that change the result?”

The Benefits of Print Books

There is evidence traditional print books, newspapers, and magazines improve comprehension. A 2023 study of leisure reading in the Review of Educational Research has found that young students – particularly in elementary and middle school – understand what they read much better if the text is in print6.

Book and Media Studies Professor Paolo Granata shares Noel’s concern with haste. E-books can feel interchangeable, he says.

“If you read thousands of e-books on the same device on the same typeface,” Paolo says, “the context within which the reading experience takes place is all the same, and that may affect the way you retain knowledge. In printed books, because every book is different, that difference fosters the uniqueness of that reading experience.”

In one corner, tactile authenticity; in the other, canny convenience. The more one e-book screen resembles another, the more a reader gains confidence using standard tools and options such as a full-text search, page zoom, or chapter download.

“At some point,” Paolo says, “we need to stop reading and start thinking—that’s the most important point for any student or scholar. The problem with reading onscreen is it is reading for collecting, researching, putting things together . . . Sometimes we do not read to understand what is inside but to KNOW what is inside. Reading on paper has the benefit of allowing you to stop reading easily.”

The University’s Robarts Library buys most of the campus e-books, but there are more than 40 libraries at the University of Toronto, and sometimes smaller ones like the Kelly Library at St. Michael’s College will purchase them.

The Kelly Library’s e-book adventure began in 2018. The library bought 235 e-books the following year. Then everything changed. Between May 2020 and April 2021, at the height of the pandemic, Kelly librarians bought 1,063 e-books – and the spending has continued: 1,112 e-books in 2021-2022, and 1,203 in 2022-2023.


1 Janine A. Kuntz and Jeannette E. Pierce, “The 2019 Acrl Academic Library Trends and Statistics Annual Survey Mapping Results to the Acrl Standards for Libraries in Higher Education,” College & Research Libraries News 82, February 2021, 88, Across North America between 2015 and 2019, academic library print book circulation plummeted by 32%.

2 Diane Mizrachi and Alicia M. Salaz, “Reading Format Attitudes in the Time of COVID,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 48, no. 4 (July 2022): 7,

3 Annie Gleeson et al., Ebooks Survey July 2021, Cambridge College Libraries Forum (CCLF), University of Cambridge, September 2021, 15,; Tran, Vincent, “COVID-19’s Impact on Post-Secondary Student’s Learning Preferences on Different Mediums with Nonfiction Textbooks” (Under diss., Ryerson University, 2020), 19-20,; Firman Parlindungan, Refanja Rahmatillah, and Lia Lisyati, “Academic Reading Preferences and Behaviors of Indonesian Undergraduate Students during Covid-19 Pandemic,” TESOL International Journal 16, no. 4.1 (2021): 21-22,;  see also: Rexwhite Tega Enakrire and Janneke Mostert, “Academic Reading Format Preferences and Behaviours: An Exploratory Study amongst Undergraduate African University Students,” Mousaion 39, no. 2 (2021), 9,; Jan Stejskal and Petr Hajek, “The Impact of COVID-19 on E-Book Reading Behavior: The Case of the Municipal Library of Prague,” The Library Quarterly 92, no. 4 (2022): 399,; Jane Secker and Elizabeth Tilley, “Students, Academic Reading and Information Literacy in a Time of COVID,” Journal of Information Literacy 16, no. 2 (2022): 72, 78,

4 Lisa M. Rose-Wiles, Gerard Shea, and Kaitlin Kehnemuyi, “Read in or Check Out: A Four-Year Analysis of Circulation and In-House Use of Print Books,” Journal of Academic Librarianship 46, no. 4 (April 2020): first paragraph of results section,

5 Steve Rosato, “The Digital Toolbox: Case Studies, Best Practices and Data for the Academic Librarian– Academic Libraries Further Embrace EBooks as Demand Increases During COVID-19 Pandemic,” Against the Grain 32, no. 6 (December 2020): second-last paragraph,

6 Lidia Altamura, Christina Vargas, and Ladislao Salmerón, “Do New Forms of Reading Pay Off? A Meta-Analysis on the Relationship Between Leisure Digital Reading Habits and Text Comprehension,” Review of Educational Research (pre-print published online December 12, 2023): 26,

Richard Carter is a reference librarian at the John M. Kelly Library, University of St. Michael’s College, in the University of Toronto. He teaches students how to find and make sense of sources, manages the library website, and creates and updates research guides and learning objects. Richard can be reached at

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