Sometimes Paper Trumps the Screen

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I’ve been reading a lot about ebooks lately. In Japan, they read them on their cellphones. Some folks here on this continent feel that ebooks are the natural replacement for paper books: “Libraries should be looking ahead now and take an e-book future for granted.” [<a href="Teleread] Is the ebook inevitable? Is it desirable?

There are two conversations going on in this ebook debate, and I think they need to be separated. First, we have the academic monograph; this is the sort of thing Google is going to end up digitizing. Would it be useful to have these resources keyword-searchable at our fingertips? While Michael Gorman has expressed his unhappiness at the idea, I think opening up academic monographs to searches deeper than the title page and table of contents is a good thing. I keep thinking of all those collections of papers I kept finding in my Ph.D days whose subject headings didn’t come close to covering the depth and breadth of information held within; digitizing that work can open it up not so much to lazy students who only want to strip a sentence or two out of it, but to earnest and diligent students and scholars who don’t have an expert on hand to direct them to the best in a field, to those hidden treasures nestled in a collection of related by entirely different works. Digitizing academic monographs can help us move beyond the limitations of a tight controlled vocabulary and sometimes awkward categorization. It can make up for the difficulty involved in summarizing a volume of essays in a few short terms. It will assist scholars in reaching out past the boundaries of their own disciplines by linking all academic sources that cite certain names, terms, phrases or ideas; academics are on one hand notoriously boxed into their own literature and their own fields, but are also the first to praise the idea of interdisciplinary work. Disposing of the vendor-imposed divisions between one variety of journal and another, freeing up information for universal searching of academic monographs, allows scholars to independently discover far more resources than they could previously. So I’m not at all opposed to digitizing the academic monograph.

At the same time, I strongly doubt it will disappear from the shelves. It’s wonderful to be able to keyword search through a volume for that phrase you quoted in your dissertation but lost the citation for, but I’m not sure I’d want to read Domination and the Arts of Resistance on my screen. And I’m probably one of the few people you might manage to convince to do so. Much of the time, people are looking for a specific sort of book when they come into the library; the OPAC works very well when you know just what you’re looking for. Say you’re looking for a history book on Catherine de Medici. You search the OPAC, you find Catherine de Medici: A History. You need to read it because you’re writing a paper on her, your professor wrote this book, and you expect to read through most of it. It’s 350 pages long. What would you rather do; download a PDF file of the book, or take the battered library copy and start flipping through it on the bus on the way home?

In some ways I’m still pretty old school. When I’m doing hardcore research I bring those tiny little fat notebooks with me. I keep one open and a pen in hand while I read. I write down everything I think is interesting and every idea I have while I read, with page numbers in the margin. I have a box full of pastel-coloured post-it notes, and I use them to take notes in library books. I write down lines that are important, arguments I’m having with the author, or points that spin off my head while I’m reading. Sometimes I summarize the chapter at the end, linking two post-it notes together. I know many library staff would cringe at my use of post-it notes in books, but I take them all out when I’m done (with page numbers added), and paste them into my notes for posterity. And I’ve never lifted any text off with my gentle adhesive, I promise.

What would make the PDF version of Catherine de Medici: A History more attractive to me: the ability to a) highlight lines or paragraphs, b) “dog ear” particular pages, c) add notes and marginalia to my heart’s content. Essentially, I want to be able to write all over that file in a way that’s difficult with a book. I have little doubt that this will come sooner rather than later, and in that case, I may well prefer the PDF version.

But I don’t need to parse every book I read quite so carefully. Sometimes I just need a page or two of good notes. Sometimes that reading is mostly background, to help me find my thesis and fill out the gaps. I don’t necessarily have to be able to recite chapter and verse. Sometimes I’m just going to sit in the corner and flip through the book for an hour and consider it read. Paper is a very good technology in those respects. In my graduate school days 9 times out of 10 I didn’t even bother to photocopy the class readings. Why photocopy when I can take my 2 hours of reserve time to actually read and digest the content? You have no idea how much money I’ve saved by reading and taking notes rather than making myself a copy.

So I don’t personally see digitization of monographs as a huge threat to the paper monograph. I think we still need them; the digitization might just help us to realize the book is there.

The second half of the ebook conversation is a public library issue. Is the ebook going to overtake the printed book for pleasure reading? Some say yes. However, paperback technology is pretty hard to beat. With a book, I can:

a) drop it in the bathtub and not either kill myself accidentally or ruin it,
b) take it to the beach and not worry about the detrimental effects of sand, salt, sun, children’s feet, or water,
c) not having the screen flickering and dying on me, the hard drive taking a nose dive, or other such technical glitch when I get to a particularly exciting part,
d) take it on the subway and not worry much if I forget and leave it there,
e) take it on a long flight and not worry about running out of battery power,
f) not find myself at a loss if I forget to plug the thing in one night, leaving me without it for a few hours in the morning (I do this with my ipod ALL THE TIME),
g) hold on to it, read it, and flip the pages with one hand,
h) leave it on a table in a restaurant or other public place, go to the bathroom, and return to find it still there,
i) take it camping and not worry about it breaking or running out of power,
j) display it proudly on my bookshelf and brush its spine with my fingers,
k) lend it to friends and family, regardless of their operating system of choice or complete lack thereof (the case of everyone in my family),
l) throw it angrily across the room when it ends in a way I don’t like (not that I’ve ever done this),
m) inscribe it lovingly to a friend and give it as a gift.

And this is not to say that I have no knowledge of the screen readers. I am in fact one myself when it comes to fiction that is nowhere but on the net. In fact, back in the day I wrote fiction for the web myself, upwards for 400,000 words of it (at least). And I know that people will read novel-length fiction on their screens; I’ve got the email to prove it. Very often people will read 100,000 words or more on their screens in a single night. But in the end, we all still prefer our paper books. We like the technical qualities they have, and just because the technology is old doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant.

The right technology for the right moment, I say. Sometimes, paper trumps the screen.

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