In studying for an MLIS in Digital Library and Information Services, one of the subjects we’ve covered in detail is digital reading. This has been from the viewpoints of the technical knowledge required to create a digital text, the legal aspects involved in marketing and supplying such works, and the physical and emotional experiences of reading in this format. At face value, what seems like a simple case of just supplying a copy of a book in a different format, what might seem comparable to the difference between hardback and paperback, is more complex and with potentially greater impact on the library user. Here is a brief summary of some of the issues we’ve explored in modules as part of my course.
In Naomi Baron’s “Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World” there is a whole chapter (“It’s not a book: The physical side of reading”) addressing the different physical experiences when reading in these different formats and how this can affect the experience of reading, the understanding of the text, cognitive aspects, and the emotional response to it (Baron, 2015, ch7). In particular, each traditional book has its unique sensory qualities, and this affects the way I feel about the book in terms of my memory of it, and my comfort reading it. Ultimately, it contributes to the evocation of memories of the text after I’ve read it. For an e-reader, all books have the same sensation – cold, hard, plastic. There is no feeling with e-readers or tablets of having a whole, self-contained object that can be cherished, put on a shelf, given as a gift or received as one. For me this somehow devalues the book and makes it less present in my life. As Baron says, e-books are out of sight and out of mind. I see a print book on the shelf and remember reading it, think about the content of the book and thus reinforce it in my mind. This feels less likely to happen with an e-reader or tablet where all books have the same ‘cover’ and place on the shelf.
Perhaps I am embracing the stereotype of the book-loving Luddite library type, but many people I speak to about this subject say the same thing – they like the convenience of e-readers, but find reading a ‘real’ book much more comfortable.
Angus Phillips in, “Turning the Page: The Evolution of the Book,” approached the issue of e-reading from a different angle. Acknowledging the perception there has been a decline in reading, Phillips questions whether this is a actually a new phenomenon, and instead argues that e-reading devices encourage reading, and the availability of e-books further encourages reading in all formats (Phillips, 2014 p35). People may be reading differently – in smaller chunks, on their mobile device – but the act of reading can be more pervasive. After all, many people now have smartphones and other mobile devices and carry them with them all the time. More recent services like JukePop and WattPad offer readers serialized fiction which they can read on their mobile phone, and can interact with and influence in real time.
But reading in this way does have its downsides, too. There are practical differences: battery life, durability, waterproofing, and usability in various light levels. Your traditional book never ran out of power, could survive a dunk in the bath and countless drops on the floor. Other issues include privacy, track-ability, and ownership. To quote Baron, “With e-books, all privacy bets are off” (Baron, 2015, p150). We can be surveilled in a way that completely surpasses anything that could ever be done with print books. Someone, somewhere, could know everything about your reading habits – what you’re reading, where you’re reading it, what page you’re up to, how quickly you read, how often you read, and on and on. This certainly produces an uneasy feeling, and although there are privacy measures that we can take to protect ourselves from threats or snooping, it’s always going to be more of an issue than with offline print / paper reading.
”With e-books, all privacy bets are off” (Baron, 2015, p150).
As a pre- and post- internet person I’ve noticed that we do read differently, but I’m uncertain that we read less. In many ways, people appear to read more, as the ever-present mobile device makes it easier to read news articles, blog posts, and other fairly short snippets anywhere and at any time (how many people faithfully carry a printed book with them like this?). Our reading behavior has changed, but we’re still reading.
But how exactly has technology changed the way we read? In “Why don’t we read hypertext novels?” Mangen and van der Weel (2015) discuss the ability to become ‘transported’ by a novel, or ‘lost’ in the book, to be a passive reader, and the affect on our level of enjoyment. With more interactive novels it is very difficult to reach this level of detachment, and so the reader can’t attain this ‘lost’ state. Although this form of interactive reading is not completely limited to digital reading (pop-up books and ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ books are an example of print versions), there is certainly the scope for more deeply interactive and varied ways of reading, all of which can be seen as distractions and barriers to becoming absorbed and lost in the text. In ”Reading Revolutions” (Cull, 2011), there is further discussion about the cognitive aspects of reading and differences with digital reading such as how we feel about the text, our ability to focus, whether we read in a different manner (e.g. scanning), and how well we comprehend the text. I found this a very interesting area of research, the fundamental question being something along the lines of ‘will it change our brains?’
Libraries clearly feel both the demand and the benefits of supplying e-books to their readers. Yet e-book lending has been a rocky road to navigate. Despite the name, e-books aren’t ‘books’ in the same legal sense as their traditional counterpart. Copyright has been a major legal obstacle to e-book loans as libraries cannot take advantage of the doctrine of first sale because e-books are treated not as items which are distributed (as with a print book from a library) but as “reproductions” (Müller, 2012, p152), and thus exempt from this doctrine. E-books can also be viewed, rather than as books in the traditional sense, as “services” which, the EU says, “cannot become the object of lending unless the copyright protected work is fixed into a tangible medium” (Müller, 2012, p152). CILIP in the UK and EBLIDA had campaigns to allow libraries to lend e-books comparably to the way they lend print books, but the situation remains uncertain and restrictive.
We also need to consider whether supplying library stock as digital instead of print is contributing to the digital divide. It’s more common for libraries to lend an e-book rather than a whole e-reader, so this automatically limits the usability to those with their own device. Even for those who can borrow an e-reader, there is a learning curve if they’ve never used one before.
There is clearly no turning back from the age of digital reading. and looking in depth at this issues has been illuminating. It has made me question how we can ensure that our library users have equal access to books in whatever format that might be, as well as ensuring that choice is available so that works can be read in the preferred format for each user.
Baron, N. S. (2014). Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World. Oxford: Oxford Univerity Press.
Cull, B. W. (2011). Reading revolutions: Online digital text and implications for reading in academe. First Monday (Vol 16 No 6, 6 June 2011).
Mangen, A. & van der Weel, A. (2015). Why don’t we read hypertext novels? Convergence: The International Journal of Research Into New Media Technologies. (1-16).
Müller, H. (2012). Legal aspects of e‐books and interlibrary loan. Interlending & Document Supply, 40(3), 150–155. http://doi.org/10.1108/02641611211258226
Phillips, A. (2014). Turning the Page: the Evolution of the Book. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.