E versus Print

posted Nov 9, 2011, 7:14 PM by jj pionke
There is a great article called "We Don't Read That Way" that just came out from ACRL.org about professors asking for print books when the libraries have ebooks available.  The article points out that many of these same professors have ereaders but that when it comes to doing actual research for new academic papers or books, they want paper books.  

I can't say that I blame them.  There is something to be said for holding an actual book in your hands, annotating it, putting post it tabs on it and in general creating a visceral connection to one's research.  That's the key I think - to create a physical connection.

Just before I started graduate school (again) at the University of Michigan (first time here), my parents bought me an ipad.  I started off the semester downloading the PDF files and quickly discovered that born digital pdf files were easy to "mark up" but that scanned files were just non-highlightable.  I started printing out my readings instead of trying to do something like a half and half (half on digital and half on paper).  What I have sitting in my closet right now is probably about 2-3 reams of paper.  I've had to buy more ink in the last 2 months than I have in the last year.  I have found that though I enjoyed marking things up on the computer or on my ipad (it was much much harder to annotate PDFs on the ipad), the paper copies have been much more usable and portable.  I have an older laptop and it's heavy which means I don't carry both the laptop and the ipad, but I do throw lighter weight readings into my bag along with other misc stuff.  I pull the readings out between classes, over meals, in the 10 minutes before class starts, waiting in a hallway.  In short, I find them far more accessible than the digital copies.  To keep up with the vast amounts of reading that goes in my classes, I've been doing a lot of micro reading and it just seems like the paper copies are more accessible.

I think it comes down to accessibility and our physical need to hold objects.  The University of Michigan owns several Letters of Paul CE 150-250 - the earliest New Testament recorded.  Although there have been beautiful high resolution digital scans done of the papyrus sheets, it doesn't begin to compare to being in the same room with the object itself.  We, as human beings, feel a deep connection to things.  Archaeologists are able to know so much about past civilizations in part because of grave goods - the things we are buried with.  We are a species that needs to touch and hold.  We are a community.  People who are true loners are very rare.  All that said, it will be at least a generation if not more until we let go of paper books.  When I say let go, I mean convert more fully to using them.  Researchers today, like myself, grew up with paper books, heck, I grew up with the card catalogue!  When we finally get to the generation of researchers that grew up completely digitally - where the books they read were on screens and not on pages, then I think you will see a marked decrease in paper books and a library's need to keep them unless they are culturally significant.  I would consider the Letters of Paul to be culturally significant, wouldn't you?

Consequently, did you know that the University of Michigan has the largest papyrus collection in the Western Hemisphere?  True Fact.