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Reading Classics on Electronic Readers in Municipal Libraries

A Long-Lasting Experiment
Lire des classiques sur liseuse en bibliothèque municipale. Une expérience qui fait long feu
Leer los clásicos en lector electrónico en biblioteca municipal. Una experiencia que no llega a buen puerto
Stéphanie Kellner
Traduction de Alba Simaku
Cet article est une traduction de :
Lire des classiques sur liseuse en bibliothèque municipale [fr]


Cet article propose d’étudier un dispositif expérimental de prêt de liseuses électroniques, chargées d’œuvres de littérature classique, mis en œuvre par une bibliothèque municipale. En s’appuyant sur des données quantitatives et qualitatives, l’enquête cherche à situer socialement les pratiques de lecture sur liseuse et à appréhender l’ambivalence des comportements culturels des lecteur·rice·s. L’analyse permet de saisir le poids des positions et trajectoires sociales et met en évidence des enjeux générationnels et professionnels d’acquisition de compétences numériques sous-jacents à la démarche d’emprunt de l’appareil par les usager·ère·s. Si l’attrait pour l’appareil découle du philonéisme de ces lecteurs et lectrices et est justifié par les intérêts pratiques de l’appareil, faisant écho au discours de bibliothécaires eux/elles-mêmes tournés vers la nouveauté, l’étude montre que ces lecteur·rice·s persistent toutefois à attribuer une valeur symbolique plus élevée au livre papier qu’au livre numérique. Ces représentations se renforcent d’autant plus par l’absence de compétences numériques faisant, qu’in fine, l’expérience de la lecture devient un projet abandonné.

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E-book lending kit

E-book lending kit

E-book lending kit borrowed from the municipal library Marguerite Renaudat from the commune of Saint-Germain-du-Puy

© Municipal library Marguerite Renaudat


  • 1 For instance, the “digital reference library” incentive programme created in 2010 (which does not i (...)
  • 2 Regarding types of document, the digital library is presented similarly to the “physical” library w (...)
  • 3 A first experiment failed in 2012 with Bookeen e-readers because of unsatisfactory content for libr (...)

1In January 2013, a French municipal library experimented with lending electronic readers loaded with literary classics to its users. This library was a pioneer in developing digital services in French municipal libraries. “Digital media” is increasingly encouraged by the government1, and is appearing in political discourse as a possible answer to many issues that libraries are currently facing, such as decreasing reading, ageing users, and declining visitation numbers. Like paperbacks in the 1970s and audiovisual media in the 1980s (Passeron & Grumbach 1985), digital media aims to attract new audiences, typically younger and less avid readers. In the library used for the present study, multimedia and other new media have been inscribed in the library’s development project since it was founded in the 1980s. After audiovisual media and CD-ROMs (Pedler & Zerbib 2001) followed by the arrival of the internet and the digitization of heritage funds, a “digital library”2 was put in place in 2010 and e-readers introduced from 20113, adding to initiatives that provided digital tablets in media and youth spaces.

Library E-reader Lending Terms
Electronic readers are lightweight reading devices that can store a large number of digital books. They connect to the internet and use e-ink technology (an electronic ink which imitates print).
The SONY e-readers available for borrowing contain a dictionary, a notetaking and highlighting tool, as well as functions such as bookmarking or bold characters. They are thus similar to other machines of the same time-period, but are not back-lit. Their navigation buttons at the bottom of the screen make them a good compromise to entirely tactile screens.
The e-reader comes in a plastic case which also contains a USB cable, the charger and four documents: the manufacturer’s instructions, an illustrated four-page user manual made by the library with step-by-step instructions; a form inviting users to share their opinion on the device; and a charter with General Terms and Conditions, lending terms and conditions, an inventory with the case contents requiring the user to respect the due date, to return the material in good condition, and to reimburse the cost of the e-reader in the event of damage.

  • 4 Survey by the Ministry for Culture and Communication on “Library use and audiences in 2016”: 47. [A (...)
  • 5 Stephanie Kellner, Digital in Public Library. Between Myths and Realities. Thesis defended on 13 Ma (...)

2However, similarly to other digital services, the experimental e-reader lending system was relatively unsuccessful, in tune with the general low popularity of digital media in libraries. This was again illustrated in the latest national survey on library audiences and usage4, despite a local audience naturally in favour of experimenting with digital reading5. How should this disparity be interpreted? How is digital reading perceived by users before and after the current experiment? To what extent does the actual medium (the e-reader, its content, the discourse and practices that surround it and the conditions of the experiment) play into its perception and use?

  • 6 Age restrictions and the restriction to borrow an e-reader one-time only were not strictly enforced (...)
  • 7 For instance, the legislative blur around lending digital devices in libraries and the constraints (...)
  • 8 Cécile Rabot put forward four ideal models that typify the librarian profession, to which one can a (...)

3E-readers are situated in specific library spaces (Passeron 1982: 72; Roselli & Perrenoud 2010) which designate their use to certain user categories (adult literature readers) rather than to a larger audience. The twenty-eight e-readers are only available in the space dedicated to literary collections for adults; they are accessible on demand for adult users registered at the library (and in theory, only once) 6. Their content is rich (three hundred and sixty five digital books), but is restricted to public domain texts, mainly classics. They do not contain the diversity of possible reading choices found in the municipal library. At the time of the survey, the arguments used to justify this offer included judicial and technical constraints and the scarcity of lending possibilities for libraries7. Chosen for its indisputable character and practical advantages, such an offer does not correspond to what the librarians, who are most likely to support digital devices, wish to promote. Indeed, a division principle between older and more modern librarians still structures library staff (see Rabot 2011: 167-172)8.

  • 9 Since Distinction (Bourdieu 1979), many have contributed to demonstrating the weight of cultural hi (...)

4The presentation of the digital services initiative does not, however, suffice to explain why the e-readers were unsuccessful. With regards to audiovisual media in the 1980s, Jean-Claude Passeron underlined the risk of inscribing “the analysis of cultural consumption into the illusion of economic abstraction by a market where offer and demand are abstractly confronted” (Passeron 1982: 72). According to the author, there is no definition of an independent means of communication that does not rely on the social definitions of its use, each must recognize the hierarchical law of “cultural legitimacy”9. It was in this study perspective that this measure constituted an observation field during the exploratory phase of the survey.

5Ten months after launching the experiment, the “survey in a survey” started to collect and process statistical data about e-reader borrowers (borrowing data related to sociological variables—gender, age, declared profession upon registration, place of residence) to observe mediation measures put in place by librarians concerning e-readers, as well as to conduct semi-directive interviews with twenty-four of the user-borrowers. The written commentaries left after the experiment were also taken into account.

6The aim of this approach was first of all to identify the audience(s) of electronic readers, both from the point of view of their social characteristics as well as from their cultural habits inside and outside the library. Thereafter, we wanted to understand the social mechanisms underlying reading practices on borrowed e-readers, in the way that the experiment presented it, (or its absence) as well as the social conditions of its reception. Is there any consistency in the audiences’ cultural preferences according to the devices on offer in the library? Inside the group constituted by readers, can digital devices instigate fluctuations in literary genre preferences? What does the analysis of trajectory and socialization modes reveal in our understanding of this practice?

7This article will attempt to answer the above questions, first of all by presenting the reasons that drive users to borrow e-readers. We aim to show that these devices are socially classifying and associated with cultural goodwill, and that generational and self-representation rationales come into play through the use of digital skills. We will then illustrate the interest shown towards these devices, and how this explains their strong attraction for a small number of users as well as their limits for reading.

  • 10 Twelve regional libraries were created in France as part of a specific initiative put in place by t (...)

The case study was carried out in a town with a regional library
10 situated in a municipality of around 140,000 inhabitants in a mainly rural area. The library is composed within a network of six sites: one central library in the town centre and five annexes on the outskirts.
The empirical data used mainly concern e-reader borrowers but are embedded in a larger data set, collected during doctoral research. This research took place over several phases and used various survey techniques in order to study the audience that constitutes one of the research angles.
An exploratory phase involved directly observing the audiences. Wide-ranging observations were carried out throughout the whole library, completing my master’s research on library “residents”. “Targeted” observations were conducted in computerized spaces (computer workshops, open access computers, etc.) during digital mediations and all other events linked to digital media (conferences and exhibitions). This phase enabled data collection on e-reader borrowers (
one hundred and ninety-nine individuals at the time of the survey), as well as comments left by users after they borrowed the e-reader (Kellner 2017a). The “targeted” observations continued after this exploratory phase.
A questionnaire was carried out in 2014 among the audiences of the whole network—members and non-members alike—over a two-month period (N=1996). The questionnaire solicited users of at least one of the library’s services, whether on-site or at a distance, and comprised six sections: library attendance; library uses and practices; practices and usage of the library’s “digital” aspects; other cultural practices (outside the library); home equipment; and social properties. The questionnaire had both paper and online versions; its distribution depended on multiple measures: face to face; delivery to users; an open access questionnaire proposal; and online use. The face-to-face distribution and delivery happened with special care given to spaces which non-members could visit. The link to the online survey was transmitted
via email to all users who had registered at the library at least once since it opened in 1998 and whose email address was still valid. Eighty-seven per cent of those surveyed answered online (Kellner 2017b).
A series of twenty-four interviews were carried out with users who had borrowed the e-reader and responded to my request positively—a request transmitted by the library
via email to all borrowers with a valid email address. The interview grid broached various topics: e-reader borrowing, library attendance, cultural practices outside the library, social adaptation modes towards reading and new technology, and social, schooling, and professional trajectories. The borrowers that I met were nine men and fifteen women, thirteen of whom were retired, eleven were professionally active, five of whom were executives and belonged to higher intellectual professions, three came from intermediary professions, and three were without any professional activity (one unemployed and two students).

1. Borrowing E-Readers from Town Libraries: Social class and Generational Stakes

1.1. Cultural Goodwill at the Root of E-Reader Borrowing

8The cultural profiles of readers who borrowed an e-reader from the library attest to their “cultural goodwill,” which, according to Pierre Bourdieu, is expressed by cultural acquiescence and a taste for educational or informative plays or shows. Middle class people share the fact that they occupy an intermediate position in the social sphere and share a “petit bourgeoishabitus founded on the dream of upward social mobility. This translates into imitating ruling class practices and distancing oneself from those that characterize the working class. It can also be observed by a profound respect for the established order and a sharing of “tastes they incline to” and “tastes they aspire to” (Bourdieu 2013). Bernard Lahire adds that, due to their intermediary position in social interactions and their contradictory cultural properties, the middle classes can, just as well as other social classes, be a space for so-called “average” types of consumption. However, they more often display cultural profiles that are dissonant: they have “just as much chance of being characterized as consonant profiles with a legitimate tendency (5.4%) as dissonant profiles with a less legitimate tendency (7.8%)” (Lahire 2004). Through their position, their mainly upward social trajectory, cultural tastes, or their relationship to culture, e-reader users define themselves by this “cultural goodwill.” This helps to define the practice of borrowing e-readers from the library as a mode of cultural acquisition.

1.1.1. Ascendant Cultural Trajectories and Average Cultural Taste

  • 11 These data are collected by the library upon first registration and are not updated or further spec (...)

9The group of 199 e-reader borrowers is not perfectly homogenous but shares certain tendencies. It is akin to the library’s main audience and belongs rather to the intellectual fraction of the upper middle classes, which includes public officials and intellectual, artistic, and liberal professions among its members. Just like the library audience, these users mainly appear in the “executives and higher intellectual” (29.2%) and “intermediary” (18.5%) professional categories11. The reconstitution of social trajectories from the twenty-four interviews allows us to refine this data, revealing a diversity of trajectories, often upwardly mobile (inter or intra class), through qualifications or a promotion giving access to a higher professional status. Like the library audience, many of the respondents were female, but women are nonetheless not overrepresented. However, with more than 56.3% who are over 50 years old (compared to 48.7% at the library), the individuals who borrowed e-readers are mostly retired or in the last decade of their professional activity, and an overrepresentation of 50-59 year-olds allows us to distinguish them from the library’s general audience (Kellner 2017a).

  • 12 The authors suggest refining their gaze on cultural practices by taking a closer look at the laws t (...)

10These users have many cultural practices in common. However, since town library services are becoming increasingly diverse, qualitative and quantitative differences can be noted, particularly in the way these services are used. Some only use the space; others have a variety of practices with varying intensity (Passeron & Grumbach 1989)12. Visiting a town library often indicates the desire to be cultivated and is often combined with other cultural establishments (theatre, cinema, as well as operas and concerts for some) and sometimes volunteer work. Furthermore, e-reader borrowers attend the library regularly and assiduously, and are curious about what the establishment has to offer. Like a third of the library’s audience, they are avid readers and testify to the library’s main practices: they borrow regularly, mainly books (which represent 62% of all borrowed items), but also DVDs and audio documents. In fact, 80% of them borrow several types of media. Moreover, they use the library for various purposes: film projections, conferences, concerts, exhibitions, multimedia workshops, book clubs.

11Their literary tastes disclosed in interviews present a varied palette of genres, oscillating from one end of the legitimacy hierarchy to the other: novels, mainly romantic ones, regional literature, DIY books, lifestyle and hobby books, crime or fantasy novels, comics, manga, and political and philosophical essays. They are neither entirely popular nor completely legitimate and vary between “tastes they incline to” and “tastes they aspire to” (Bourdieu 2013). Some are more geared towards standard genres, such as Mr D., a 33-year-old nurse, who mixes fantasy literature, crime, and comics. Some have consonant profiles with a rather more legitimate tendency or dissonant profile. Mrs M., a 65-year-old retired psychologist for child legal protection from a modest background, says that she flits between novels, self-help, and DIY books.

12Mrs T. (a 70-year-old working class retiree, the second of eight sisters) explains that her mother liked to read and that unlike her sisters, who “do not read and do not like to read… I myself have always liked to read.” Although she has been employed in manual labour, the last twenty years of her working life were spent in a bookbinding workshop in a Parisian library, which gave her privileged access to the world of books, reading and libraries. She has a dissonant profile; her practices oscillate from one pole of legitimacy to the other. She listens to Jazz, classical music, and French pop. She reads a lot: crime; novels; textbooks; biographies; “educational books;” and social articles in women’s magazines; and reads local newspapers more than national dailies. She goes to few cultural establishments but visits the cinema and the library every week. She is part of a book club, goes to multimedia workshops, attends exhibitions (but does not go to concerts or conferences) and borrows items (books, CDs, and audiobooks). She also buys second-hand books from charity shops and new books from independent bookshops. What is more, she does not usually keep her books, but gives them back to the organizations. She carries a legitimist judgement of her practices and rejects “commercial” culture—thus arguably displaying solidarity with the book trade: “I shouldn’t say this, but I discovered that Leclerc have a very, very big bookshop, which is really interesting, and easy to access… Well, since it’s not an independent bookshop…” She distances herself from certain goods and values others: “I used to read soppy novels when I was a teenager, I can’t remember what. I read thrillers when I worked at the library and, with some of the librarians—we had new copies—I made the cover and of course I had a look at it while I worked.”

1.1.2. Acquiescence Towards the Institution

13The curiosity of the e-reader audience goes hand in hand with a cultural acquiescence and institutional deference which leads to adhering to what is offered simply because it is on offer. Paradoxically, digital reading was condemned in statu nascendi, since it could lead to the disappearance of paper books, or even the disappearance of libraries. The notion of a digital replacement for paper weighs heavily on the readers, who still borrow e-readers. In interviews and written comments, many insist on not wanting to turn their back on paper books: “[They] will not replace paper books”, writes one retired man. Nevertheless, the e-readers on loan at the library constitute a kind of commodification of the institution. Borrowing one means manifesting one’s adherence to the service and to a procedure which is appreciated, regardless of the judgement of that experience: “Many thanks to those responsible for putting new and quality equipment at the readers’ disposal” (executive male, 50-60 years old).

14This compliance goes hand in hand with a more general satisfaction expressed regarding an institution which has made itself more geographically and socially accessible, as Mrs T. explains: “We didn’t go to the library because back then… Well, I come from a poor family. Like many people. We didn’t go to libraries. It was afterwards […] I think it was the children, we brought them, they started going to libraries through school.” She added that she started attending libraries when she started work at the factory: “It was a library the likes of which you have never seen, you know, an old-school library where all the books were bound in the same colour, the librarian with her grey blouse who watched to make sure we didn’t steal any books [laughs].” In this light, showing interest in the e-readers on offer at the library means giving one’s support to the institution, sometimes in a fully conscious manner. Mr S, a 29-year-old master’s student, explains: “If we don’t use what the library has to offer, the library will no longer have a purpose.”

1.2. The Generational Effect and the Search for Differentiation Through Digital Skills

15The generational effect and differentiating by ways of digital skills, along with the audience’s cultural goodwill allow us to understand what is at stake when borrowing e-readers from the library. Social or professional interaction logics underpin the procedure.

1.2.1. Older People and Acquiring Digital Skills

16Approaching the analysis in social class terms is insufficient in terms of understanding what is at stake when these users borrow e-readers, especially for the majority who are over fifty. The overrepresentation of 50-59 year olds indeed invites us to consider a generational approach. For the users from a generation which “constituted a portion of the population which was still or already active, and whose children were still dependent on the household, when computers and the internet entered their homes and practices” (Kellner 2017a), the transmission of digital skills happened in part within the family and the professional world and continued in libraries. In an upward mobility and cultural deference logic, borrowing e-readers puts the acquisition or strengthening of digital skills at stake, which indicate a search for cultural distinction through the mastery of digital devices. Borrowing electronic readers from the library constitutes a possible objectified form of cultural capital which calls upon technical skills (knowing how to use the device and its different functions), as well as the capacity to navigate available online cultural goods (knowing how to use the web, searching for digital books, knowing and being able to navigate online sales platforms), and the mastery of a lexicon that is specific to the digital world (knowing and being able to speak “digital”).

17Mastering these skills is a principle of differentiation. Some borrowers claim to feel excluded by younger generations. The digital world seems to put their social ascent into question, along with the scholarly and cultural investment that permitted it. Subsequently, mediation services offered by the library—whether through lending e-readers with explanations from the librarian, a re-written and simplified user manual for the device, or in-depth workshops—are invested in to bridge the inequalities that result from differentiated access to digital devices and content from a generational perspective.

18Mrs E., a 71-year-old retired primary school teacher, was born into a working-class family in the fifth arrondissement of Paris. Married to a retired computer scientist who for health reasons could not continue helping her, she asked her son to help her with digital issues. She goes to the theatre and art-house cinemas, sometimes reads the local press and browses women’s magazines. Her reading is geared towards ‘philosophy’ and current affairs—she particularly likes Alain Finkielkraut. She attends the library regularly, as well as its multimedia workshops, and during the interview she often stated that she felt “old” and “useless” when it came to new technology: “There’s this whole relationship with devices, and that makes me feel very old.” “Not only had I never used an e-reader, but I haven’t even got one of those phones like you have [smartphone], I have an old-school mobile phone that can’t even write text messages, nothing at all, so you can kind of see where I’m at.… But I haven’t even got a tablet, iPhone or anything like that. So, I’m totally useless, I just have a screen and emails, that’s all I can do.” Illustrating a feeling of exclusion linked to her incompetence when using digital devices, this extract highlights that the act of reading was not at stake when she borrowed an e-reader, but instead the acquisition of visible and socially recognized digital skills which constitute a marker for social integration. If the negative generational effect can presumably be compensated by a resort to mediation in libraries, it is because cultural goodwill allows for this.

1.2.2. Staged Presentation of Self and Professional Identity Building Through Digital Skills for Librarians

19Acquiring digital skills is also an issue for librarians themselves, who constitute another specific category of borrower. Their presence was confirmed during observations of digital mediation workshops. Librarians who work at other institutions, looking for a job or preparing for professional exams alone or within a university training course, come to observe the workshop, take note of what is on offer, or to talk to future colleagues. Much is at stake here: acquiring digital skills that are transferable to the professional sphere as well as actual access to the profession, the construction of a professional identity, and the strengthening of social capital within this professional space. Mrs B., a librarian since having retrained, attends various libraries in the region and borrows documents from them. She is an avid reader (approximately a novel a week) and is interested in using the e-reader to prepare for the librarian exam: “I wanted to have handled an e-reader in case I was asked about it during the oral exam.”

  • 13 Specialized library assistants are category B public service agents, whose status has been guarante (...)

20Just like reading, e-reading experiences are subjective and susceptible to being shared with family members, friends and/or colleagues. In a social interaction context, it constitutes a possibility for a staged presentation of self (Goffman 1959) and to construct or affirm the idea of belonging to a professional group. Mrs G., 31 years old, has a job as a contractual specialized library assistant (BIBAS)13 at a university library, and at the time of the interview was preparing for the BIBAS exam in order to get tenure. She recounted the time she borrowed an e-reader:

“So, when I borrowed the e-reader, it was a Saturday, I can remember that because after that I met up with a colleague at a cafe and I switched the e-reader on with her, and I showed it to her a bit. Well, it ended up being quite a discussion because there were lots of people around. They were saying: ‘Yes, well, paper is always better in the end, I don’t really believe in it, I don’t really like it’. There were teachers there, and librarians too. I didn’t say anything at first, I didn’t give my opinion because I hadn’t tested it out yet. In the end, I think you have to try it out and see, compare. So, I showed it to this colleague immediately. Afterwards, I showed it to my boyfriend who is also a librarian. He was less interested, he never tried it out. The e-reader was at home on the table, but he wasn’t interested.”

21Mrs G., 31 years old, is a keen reader. She mainly reads children’s literature and documentary books. She had never handled an e-reader or a digital tablet before, and described herself as “not very high-tech, let’s say.” Although smiled as she revealed that Zola was not really her thing, she expressed a view of a divided world in which she places herself on the literary rather than the technological side. She visits various libraries in the region where she mainly borrows books and CDs, sometimes DVDs. She attends book fairs and shows and has borrowed an e-reader twice after having discovered it during a presentation by the library at a book fair stand. Her motivation was professional at first: “I wanted to know how an e-reader works. You have to know how to use these devices. If we want to offer them to users later, we have to know them well first.”

  • 14 The author refers, from a sociohistorical perspective, to what she calls the “lateness rhetoric” in (...)

22The topic of borrowing e-readers came up in many conversations with. Librarians are seen as models by a participant who was preparing her exam and used the same rhetoric: libraries, in her opinion, are as they should be: “versatile,” “each little piece has its place in the basket” and as for the e-reader: “it’s positive,” it’s a way to ensure “access [to reading] to the general public… We have to evolve, really, to attract a wider audience, and to reach out to as many people as possible.” These words are inscribed, on the one hand, in the professional doxa, according to which French libraries need to evolve and catch up on a certain lag (Bertrand 2006: 134)14. Digital services thus constitute a means to do so and, on the other hand, in the continuity of a political discourse that considers that digital services grant wider access to culture and reading.

2. The Charms and the Limits of E-readers in Libraries

2.1. Charm with No Future

23The appreciation of e-readers firstly concerns their innovation as they open up new opportunities in terms of reading horizons as well as technical possibilities.

2.1.1. The Charm of Novelty as a Space of Possibilities

24Drawn to the novelty of e-readers, borrowers describe the device as a fascinating opening up of possibilities due to two of its main characteristics: its capacity to store hundreds of books and—its mobile and lightweight naturethe possibility of reading them any time, anywhere (while walking, in pitch dark, when it is windy, etc.). Mr R., 65 years old and retired, pointed to the e-reader, saying: “There are four hundred books in there, in this little box.” Used by big brands as selling points and, taking up the Babelian myth evoked by Jorge Luis Borges in his 1941 short story The Library of Babel and by other writers such as Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose (1982), these storage capacities hark back to the fantasy of possessing an infinite library, offering (socially) limitless access to reading. The dematerialization of books and the device’s technical possibilities thus appear as a liberation of reading practices compared with the size and weight constraints tied up with the materiality of paper which force us into selecting objects and defining time and space.

25The attraction of e-readers on offer in the library results from the encounter between user dispositions and the offer presented by professionals over a given time, in which all parties accept this attraction. Yves Winkin developed the idea of charm from a formula by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “willing suspension of disbelief”: “temporarily suspending one’s disbelief is not quite the same as investing in a new belief” but supposes that all participants “play along” (Lallement & Winkin 2015: 118).

26Moreover, compliance does not necessarily imply use: users admitted to not always exploiting the possibilities they boasted of. Mr S., 63 years old and retired, did not carry his e-reader around, but was of the opinion that “[it’s useful] in places that are a bit heterogenous, like campsites or something like that, where you can have many [books] with you, and the advantage is that it’s very small.” Without being naive, the e-reader’s charm as an infinite library goes hand in hand with a kind of temporary denial that Winkin explains with the help of a quotation by Octave Mannoni: “I know well, but all the same” (Mannoni 1969).

27Its charm only exists thanks to the work of library professionals, “charm engineers” who carry out the necessary engineering backstage to ensure that faith in these devices prevails. They do so by valuing tools and digital content through mediation devices and a communication plan—library agenda keeping, posters, organization of other events around “digital” services (conferences, exhibitions, etc.), all of which require communication. Librarians play along with varying degrees of conviction, depending on their professional profile. In fine, the charm hinges on an encounter with elective affinities, between an audience which plays along and professionals who come together around the value of novelty and who “help each other out in dealing with denial and suspension” (Winkin 2015: 118).

2.1.2. Technical Elements as Justification 

  • 15 Prêt numérique en bibliothèque [digital lending in libraries] is an interprofessional initiative wh (...)

28Besides the emancipation from space and time constraints associated with the e-reader, its technical qualities are put forward by borrowers in order to justify their interest in it. It is seen as a “good device” for reading, and its ease while reading justifies its use. Marie Doga and Olivier Zerbib identified this justification of digital reading through technical evaluation via a survey carried out in 2014 on a digital book platform that was integrated into the PNB apparatus15 (Doga & Zerbib 2016): digital books appeared to be more practical for reading because they were more dynamic, easily handled and convertible. For e-reader borrowers, these technical elements of justification are structured around three themes: physical hindrance; geographic mobility; and the integration of reading with other simultaneous and linked tasks. These advantages are more or less the same for audiobooks. A survey carried out by the National Editing Union (2017) estimated the number of French people who had listened to an audiobook at 18%. The three main factors which motivate people to listen to audiobooks are being able to do something else simultaneously (45%), reading while travelling (40%), and eye strain relief from screens (35%).

  • 16 The survey did not feature this variable which was revealed during the semi-directive interviews.

29The major physical impediment which has led to an interest in e-readers was eyesight impairments. The absence of backlighting on the device and the character magnification tool were two functions that were particularly mentioned by readers, who expect this type of device to be easier to read than paper books. E-ink technology is less often mentioned in such terms, but users do notice a difference in comfort between the screen of a digital pad or computer and that of an e-reader. Not only are they comfortable to read, e-readers are also transportable. Readers who move around a lot and are used to doing so with one or more books use this aspect to justify their interest in e-readers. Emmanuel Pedler and Olivier Zerbib identified this aspect as a determining factor in their study on the introduction of CDs in libraries (Pedler & Zerbib 2001)16 and suggested a consideration of geographic mobility as a pertinent variable in cultural sociology. In this regard, they highlighted that travel is not necessarily the same depending on the library’s location (Paris, urban centres, rural zones, and the outskirts of cities) and the direction of commute (town to town, village to town). They observed a significant effect of the variable on three of the four sites under study, which leads us to believe that neophilia is directly linked to travel—a serious hypothesis for understanding the e-reader’s durability.

30The device also allows for activities which are peripheral to reading. Mr G., who has the longest commute, uses the e-reader’s additional features and downloads texts to be translated:

“I downloaded texts, tales, in Polish, and translated them, and I can even take notes on the e-reader []. I even used it to write letters that I transferred onto my email to correct accents, and I was then able to send them []. I saved time. [] I typed up my personal letters and emails onto the e-reader, and then transferred them to Gmail and sent them. So, it helped me out a lot.”

31E-readers present similar advantages to audiobooks (integrated into town library collections and representing an access point for 25% of readers) as well as specific potential. They are well integrated into general cultural consumption habits, to the extent that the device’s technical possibilities correspond to readers’ lifestyles and social profiles better.

2.2. The Availability of Classics, the Symbolic Value and Advantages of Paper Books: Obstacles to Reading Practices on E-readers

32Despite the positive aspects highlighted by borrowers, they did not always read on their e-readers. Some only read passages, openings, or extracts. Few read an entire book. Others merely “browsed” the menus. The classics offered on the library e-readers, the remaining symbolic value attached to paper books, and the skills necessary to fully master the device constituted obstacles to reading on e-readers. All in all, the experience rarely turned out to be positive, and for three-quarters of those interviewed, would be short-lived.

2.2.1. Literary Classics Missing from the Readers’ Cultural Profiles

33A first discrepancy stems from the mismatch between the content on offer in the e-readers in the context of this experiment and the literary tastes of its borrowers. The offer was indeed very restrictive compared with what the libraries offer in their collections. As Cécile Rabot notes, “Although school classics are available in public reading libraries,” they are not the books that are most showcased, either because they are considered too well known, or because they are perceived as “famously difficult productions with a limited audience, thus less likely to procure reading pleasure to a wider audience” (Rabot 2011: 89). Libraries thus diversified their content in order to become more accessible to a wider audience.

  • 17 35% of users declare having read classics in the last 12 months, which places this genre behind non (...)
  • 18 See the survey carried out by Ipsos for the Centre national du livre, “Les Français et la lecture e (...)

34Furthermore, in 1988, Patrick Parmentier noted a decline in classics among genres read in libraries, which he linked to a cultural legitimacy crisis (Parmentier 1988). Yet classics constitute the third most cited “genre” among those read by the audience at the library in this study17. Classics are read just as much there as on the national level, and figure ahead of many of the other genres most requested by the French general public18. But e-reader borrowers do not count them among their preferences: classic texts are not part of their reading habits, whether inside libraries or outside. The middle classes’ cultural goodwill does not exclude distancing legitimate cultural products that are sometimes rejected as too “intellectual” or “snobbish,” as noted by Bernard Lahire with the Nadege example (Lahire 2004). Classics are still mainly associated with school requirements and literature from the past: “I guess I read more recent books on the e-reader” (40-50 year-old man, intermediary profession); “the e-books on offer are good choices for the elderly and retirement homes” (40-50 year-old woman, employee). In this regard, e-reader borrowers are just as distant towards classics as librarians, who seldom showcase them. Motivated by novelty, they thus share common values.

35In cases where borrowing an e-reader led to reading an entire book, the borrowers were mainly female middle-class readers, with a consonant cultural profile and a rather legitimate tendency. Such was the case of Mrs E., who was receptive to classics thanks to her former job as a teacher. She states having read a book “hat I never read when I was young, Le Grand Meaulnes, and I would have probably never read it if I hadn’t had it on the e-reader… [it’s] a book that I should have read when I was 18 or 16 years old… I was a teacher, I should have read it, oh well [laughs].”

2.2.2. The Higher Symbolic Value of Paper Books

36The symbolic value of paper books remains very strong among those users drawn to the device’s novelty. They are seen as superior to digital books, which have a hard time gaining legitimacy. Paper books constitute the reference that e-readers are systematically compared with. Digital reading on e-readers mobilized patterns incorporated over a long period of time during primary and secondary school socialization, associated with printed books, which preceded the emergence of digital devices and generated specific ways of reading and thinking about reading. Just like the practice of photographs in bourgeois photo-clubs kept painting in its line of sight and aimed at acquiring the same dignity (Castel & Schnapper 1965: 144-172), readers refer to paper books to maintain a distance from digital media, which they perceive as less worthy.

  • 19 The expression “bodily” refers here to Bourdieu’s notions of “bodily learning” (1980: 123) and “bod (...)
  • 20 Annette Béguin made a similar observation about reading on a screen: “the virtual body projects its (...)

37Many describe what is lacking in digital books compared with paper books in sensory terms: e-readers “cannot replace a book: we like touching a book, to stroke it (if we like it), the pleasure of owning a book that we like, the desire to turn pages” (woman, missing data); “Back in the day—though it’s less true today—I liked the smell of paper” (Mrs M., 65 years old, retired psychologist). The pleasure of reading seems intrinsically linked to sensory engagement, and as books seem to “speak to the body,” reading on paper is thus like a “bodily”19 practice, whose embodied gestures seem more natural than those of the e-reader, for which effort and practice, search, and sometimes mediation are necessary. The disappointment in digital reading on an e-reader compared with reading on paper comes from a reading process that wishes to imitate or even reproduce the gestures adapted to paper on a new medium20.

38In fact, borrowers treat an e-reader like a paper book, from the moment they borrow it to when they return it. At home, they usually leave it on the pile of borrowed books: “On the bedside table for instance, or on the arm of a chair… And I considered it [the e-reader] just like a book.” (Mrs E.) Though they may pay extra attention to it because of the cost that any damage would entail, the places and moments dedicated to reading are the same as with paper books. The rituals are replicated from the very beginning: use of a bookmark, use of a magnifying glass, highlighting, note taking, dictionary use, etc.

2.2.3. Goodwill, But Not Always Accompanied by the Necessary Skills

39The reference to paper books, combined with a more or less mastered use of the e-reader, interferes with its use. Modes of action and thought with paper books persist but are not adapted, which lead to a feeling of incompetence. Mrs E., who came to an interview with her own e-reader, puts her difficulties down to the whims of the device, which refused to display the keyboard: “What I don’t understand is how to get to the keyboard. Sometimes it appears, but when I want it to appear, it doesn’t. Yes, you see, it’s very soft. I don’t think I’m made for digital things; I bang on it as if… See, I’m smashing it! [laughs]”. At her request, I press on the icon to make the keyboard appear: “See, you have the magic hand, that’s it, you have a screen-hand [laughs].” Thus, the absence of skills along with the persistence of inadequate patterns does not allow for a serene use of the device and often leads to ultimately abandoning it. At the time of the interview, Mrs E. was nevertheless the only surveyed person who insisted on using the device: she was determined to succeed in handling the e-reader and borrowed it twice before buying her own.


40To conclude, understanding digital reading on e-readers in town libraries as they were on offer at the time of the survey involves struggling to articulate various levels of analysis. By questioning the reasons individuals borrow an e-reader, their interest(s) or disinterest in the kind of reading it supposes—i.e., a technical type of reading which calls upon knowledge and skills and is also experimental—I revealed invisible mechanisms that participate in the construction of their choice and depend on their own vision of reading. As avid readers, characterized by their cultural goodwill, they do not necessarily correspond to the audience targeted by public reading policies that are trying to use digital means to widen reading, but nevertheless constitute the groups that this experimental device might hope to reach.

41Articulating different levels of analysis becomes interesting when we understand that, more than individual stories, what is expressed through such uses of e-readers is a way of being a reader, of thinking and practising reading. In short, it is the expression of the reader’s habitus that has constructed itself along an upward social trajectory, a habitus that is strongly impacted by the incorporation of values and by a deference towards culture and cultural institutions. However, when the necessary skills are lacking, cultural goodwill is not enough to make the practice enjoyable and thus allow for it to continue. This harks back to a generational effect more than class dispositions. From attraction to the novelty of the device and a trusting compliance with a service proposed by a recognized cultural institution, the survey shows the ambivalence of the middle classes that are at once acquiescent, curious, and charmed, but equally disappointed, convinced that e-readers are not for them. Struggling to conquer a technology that seems to annihilate the cultural and scholarly investment agreed upon for their upward mobility and access to their social position, they mostly had a hard time dealing with the device, for want of handling it with ease, and hid behind the affirmation of the symbolic value of paper books that digital books will never achieve. Except for one respondent (Mrs. E.), who acquired an e-reader in view of a travel project (a cruise), the experience of digital reading did not win over those who tried it out, although they do not exclude the possibility of trying it again in the future.

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1 For instance, the “digital reference library” incentive programme created in 2010 (which does not include the library investigated for this study) aims to reach new audiences.

2 Regarding types of document, the digital library is presented similarly to the “physical” library with books, newspapers, and magazines, music, videos, independent study and youth content.

3 A first experiment failed in 2012 with Bookeen e-readers because of unsatisfactory content for libraries.

4 Survey by the Ministry for Culture and Communication on “Library use and audiences in 2016”: 47. [Accessed on 25 July 2019.]

5 Stephanie Kellner, Digital in Public Library. Between Myths and Realities. Thesis defended on 13 March 2020.

6 Age restrictions and the restriction to borrow an e-reader one-time only were not strictly enforced. However, very few users borrowed the e-reader twice, and very few were under eighteen years old.

7 For instance, the legislative blur around lending digital devices in libraries and the constraints on access to digital books due to mechanical reproduction rights. Note that the “Digital Lending in Libraries” (Prêt numérique en bibliothèque) initiative was launched later on, in 2014 (the library in question did not participate).

8 Cécile Rabot put forward four ideal models that typify the librarian profession, to which one can associate types of offers: A-conservators/collectors (a model that is more disposed to offer classics); B-Educators/activists; C-Discoverers/setters (model which carries the e-reader device); D - Followers/sellers.

9 Since Distinction (Bourdieu 1979), many have contributed to demonstrating the weight of cultural hierarchies. For instance, Gérard Mauger, Bernard Lahire, Philippe Coulangeon, and Wenceslas Lizé.

10 Twelve regional libraries were created in France as part of a specific initiative put in place by the government from 1992 to 1997. It granted the right to financial aid to equip town libraries that corresponded to specific criteria in terms of collection volume, size, and professional education, with the aim of strengthening the area’s network from the regional capitals.

11 These data are collected by the library upon first registration and are not updated or further specified (Kellner 2017a). Uncertainty remains around the issue of employment: the proportion of retired users and their former profession. The questionnaire did not allow me to complete these data because the individuals who borrowed an e-reader only represented 1.3% of respondents (N=1985).

12 The authors suggest refining their gaze on cultural practices by taking a closer look at the laws that determine their intensity. Through the survey, an audience typology emerges that is distinguished by variation and intensity of use. The two extreme ideal types in this typology are passers-by (who simply call by to borrow and return documents) and residents (who stay and spend time onsite).

13 Specialized library assistants are category B public service agents, whose status has been guaranteed by the 21 September 2011 decree n°2011-1140, in which it is stated that they are entrusted with tasks in the area of data processing and conservation, greeting the public and managing personnel in charge of stock. The job is accessible through public office exams for those with a level IV diploma but can also be held by contractual workers.

14 The author refers, from a sociohistorical perspective, to what she calls the “lateness rhetoric” in institutional and professional discourse, and specifies: “Thus, the lateness rhetoric keeps a certain vitality, always with the aim of legitimizing expected efforts. Whatever the objective, factual, statistical situation, we are always someone’s latecomer.”

15 Prêt numérique en bibliothèque [digital lending in libraries] is an interprofessional initiative which includes librarians, publishers, booksellers, and IT companies. It was launched in 2014 under the Ministry of Culture to encourage the availability of digital reading in public libraries.

16 The survey did not feature this variable which was revealed during the semi-directive interviews.

17 35% of users declare having read classics in the last 12 months, which places this genre behind non-crime fiction (60%) and crime fiction (47%).

18 See the survey carried out by Ipsos for the Centre national du livre, “Les Français et la lecture en 2017” [The French and reading in 2017]. The survey revealed that, for a seemingly identical rate (43%), classics are not among the three most read genres by French people (p. 13). [Accessed on 25 July 2019.]

19 The expression “bodily” refers here to Bourdieu’s notions of “bodily learning” (1980: 123) and “bodily knowledge” (1997: 197), which he explored with the notion of the “cultivated/cultured body” of bourgeois women (1979:. 443). “Bodily” practices are not intentional acts but reflect the exteriorization of incorporated regularities that become lasting dispositions (1997: 197). The “reading body” thus expresses patterns of thought as well as patterns of embodied action and reading an e-reader in a “bodily” manner means reproducing known regularities of paper reading onto the electronic device. Loïc Wacquant and Sylvia Faure add that, in the case of boxing (Wacquant 2002) and dance (Faure 2000), these regularities result from a learning process, showing the mechanisms of the practices’ incorporation process.

20 Annette Béguin made a similar observation about reading on a screen: “the virtual body projects itself onto the on-screen device with the same movement patterns as book-reading that it has already incorporated…” (Béguin 2001: 149).

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Table des illustrations

Titre E-book lending kit
Légende E-book lending kit borrowed from the municipal library Marguerite Renaudat from the commune of Saint-Germain-du-Puy
Crédits © Municipal library Marguerite Renaudat
Fichier image/jpeg, 375k
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Stéphanie Kellner, « Reading Classics on Electronic Readers in Municipal Libraries »Biens Symboliques / Symbolic Goods [En ligne], 7 | 2020, mis en ligne le 20 novembre 2020, consulté le 23 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Stéphanie Kellner

Université de Rouen Normandie/Dynamiques sociales contemporaines (Dysolab)

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