Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Bookworm Who Loves E-Books

Steven Anderson has a post today on whether or not libraries should have books.

He cites the example of the headmaster of Cushing Academy in Massachusetts who -- according to the Boston Globe -- is remaking his school's library into a media center where e-readers replace books. From the Globe article:
“When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,’’ said James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing and chief promoter of the bookless campus. “This isn’t ‘Fahrenheit 451’ [the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel in which books are banned]. We’re not discouraging students from reading. We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology.’’

Beings that we're in a sort of transition period between media, it's no wonder that folks will have strong reactions to Tracy's impulse. The article cites students and faculty quite upset with the manoeuvre. I'm sure there will be more than a fair share of supporters and detractors on either side.

Coming down on the side of the tomes, Steven writes:
I am one of the biggest advocates for progressive technology in the classroom you will find. There is nothing I want more than students to be immersed in technology whenever possible. However, one has to question the wisdom of this man. Replacing a collection of 20,000 books just does not add up for me. It is doubtful that even 25% of the paper books that were available before are available in a digital format. While there are services like Google Books and the various eBook outlets, I think it is premature to call books "outdated technology."

I understand where Steven is coming from. My bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, dining room, living room, car, and office are all littered with books. I'm absolutely certain that I own more physical paper than most human beings. I love books. As I've said they were nice.

But for all of the books I own, page-for-page I know I've read more digital text than paper text in my lifetime. Because, even for someone has always been as voracious a reader as me, I can safely say that since buying my first laptop some ten years ago, I've seen my own daily reading increase exponentially.

I think part of it is that there is just so much more text out there.

I used to read the front page of the NY Times and the Baltimore Sun each morning. Now, in the course of the day, I read the NY Times, the Sun, the Washington Post, Politico, Le Monde, The Independent UK, the Daily Dish, and the BBC Online along with very generous doses of the two dozen or so blogs I follow daily, the info and links I pick up from Twitter, and the literally hundreds of emails I've learned to filter through.

The way I used to teach, I'd read student writing twice a quarter; maybe three times in some classes. Now I read it via their blogs on a daily basis.

And as for novels and full-throttle non-fiction books? Continuing my traditional ways, I usually have two or three books out from the library on any given week. And I usually have twice as many bookmarked on my computer to read in e-format.

As a self-confessed bookworm, this is what I have to say from an utterly selfish point-of-view: I love the Internet and it has made me ten-times the reader I used to be.

Call me new-fashioned, but I actually prefer reading digital text. I prefer reading it, and I sure prefer writing it. I don't buy into the 'snuggling up with a good book' argument for physical text's superiority to e-text. On any given night, it's a toss-up for me whether I go to sleep reading an old paperback or an e-text. And given the limited and frustrating holdings of our public library, more and more it's becoming a case of the later.

Am I arguing for the end to books as we know it?

No. Because, I really don't think I have to. Time will take care of that.


  1. A colleague, who is also a good friend, told me that he rarely reads. My answer was 'I think you rarely read books.' I see many people around me who have made the physical transition to digital text, but few who have reached self-awareness that they've made this transition. Ironically, in my school the teachers that are the most progressive about using technology -- going paperless -- are arguably the biggest bibliophiles in the school.

  2. Three very well done pieces on the potential and problems related to digitizing our libraries are:

    1) This 2006 article that appeared in the Sunday NY Times Magazine:

    2) SoundPrint's half hour documentary "Who Needs Libraries?":

    3) Stewart Brand's 1998 masterpiece, "Written on the Wind":

    Any of these with which you are not familiar will be worth your time to check out.

  3. One more must read piece on this topic is Geoff Nunberg's "Google's Book Search: A Disaster for Scholars", published in August in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

  4. My biggest beef with actually replacing books, instead of just augmenting the collection with digital resources, is that it is much easier to mismanage electronic resources (make them disappear) than it is with physical resources. Remember the Bush White House loosing thousands of emails that may have incriminated them. The government of British Columbia, where I live, has done the same thing when faced with scandal. I am not saying that they wouldn't have lost the paper letters, just that they may have been easier to loose than physical records would be.
    Given that our society has a terrible record when it comes to banning books for ideological resources, I am loath to make that process easier for the ideological faction of the moment. Burning books give us something to rally against. Lost files just leave us with questions.

  5. correction: "ideological reasons" not "resources"

  6. @Michael

    Good point. And that's why it's important that e-texts be stored on the Cloud in multiple repositories throughout the world.

    The structure of the Cloud allows for governments, publishers, educational institutions, corporations, media, and individuals to all serve as "back up checks" for any given text. We need now -- as we're just at the beginning of this transition -- to work out the kinks in security, copyright, and and all the rest. Following what's been going on with Google Books, this is certainly at the forefront of many folks' concern.

    That said, I also think you might overestimate the safety-net provided by physical books. Remember: the Library of Alexandria burned down. While certainly popular titles abound in every household, specialized research and special collections are often housed in singular conditions. Not only are they difficult to access without digital means, I also question their safety. We need only to look at recent events in Afghanistan in the '90s and Iraq more recently to see how museum and library institutions can be threatened by political storms beyond their control.

    Good comment,


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