• Fri. Mar 1st, 2024

The future of the written word

ByMagdalena Liedl

Feb 17, 2015
image: melenita2012

When literature student Francesca goes to university, she does not carry around heavy books anymore. A tablet is enough for all the books she needs for her classes.

“I do buy e-books when I can for my textbooks. I feel they are just more practical in terms of comfort. Some days I’ve got a few different classes in a row and it’s just easier to have all of my reading materials in one place instead of carrying around loads of very heavy books.” Francesca explains.

“Plus, as students we move quite a lot in terms of flats and sometimes even cities, so it makes sense to reduce the amount of stuff we have to carry around every time”, she adds.

Technology has changed the way we study dramatically in the past decade. Instead of searching manually through paper library catalogues, we type a few words into Google. And instead of carrying several pounds of paper from class to class, we simply download our textbooks and carry them easily around on our kindle.

Beyond university, e-book use has been increasing rapidly over the past few years. Amazon, still the dominant player on the e-book market, has just invested heavily in its electronic resources and introduced a new flat rate for kindle users. For 10 dollars a month, e-book owners may read as much as they want.

A report by analyst firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) predicts that in the US, e-books will outsell their printed counterparts by 2018. The National Literacy Trust annual survey shows that the proportion of children and teenagers reading e-books in particular continues to rise, after growing constantly from 5.6 per cent of pupils reading e-books in 2010, to 14.3 per cent in 2013.

Universities and schools follow the trend. For university libraries, e-books are a way to purchase more books with their limited budget. At the moment, the University of Edinburgh’s library provides access to 360,000 e-books and is continuously purchasing more. The introduction of the e-book to university libraries seems to have rendered problems however, such as a book being lent out for weeks, or a book full of notes being consigned to history.

The University of Liverpool has conducted an extensive study into its students’ and staff’s e-book usage, and found that most students were well aware of the library’s e-book service and used it frequently. According to the study, “more than 80 per cent of respondents knew that they had access to e-books through the library and had actually used them showing that eBooks have quickly become an essential part of the information mix.”

However, e-books do not only change the way we carry books around, but also the reading process itself. One aspect of University of Liverpool study suggests that students use e-books for very particular purposes. According to the study, most users of e-books do not use the digital editions of books to read the whole book, but to search for specific information.

“They will read the material online, occasionally bookmarking materials for future reference. This is consistent with subsequent responses where users indicate that e-books are preferred for searches and brief interaction with material, but print books are preferred for extended reading”, the researchers say.

E-books provide the simple advantage of making it easier to search for particular terms, as students do not have to run from shelf to shelf at libraries to consult various books.

Nevertheless, electronic books do not seem to be the ultimate solution for studying. Even though Francesca tries to buy most of her textbooks as digital editions, she feels there are disadvantages: “I feel like I can concentrate better when I can turn proper pages and use real highlighters”, she says.

Research into e-book reading habits suggests that Francesca is not alone in this. A recent study carried out by researchers of Norway’s University of Stavanger indicates that e-book readers did significantly worse in recalling the structure of a read text than readers of traditional printed books. 50 students with roughly the same education level and reading habits were given the same murder mystery text. One half read it on paper, the other half on a screen. While the emotional involvement in the story was similar in both groups, the paper group did better in recalling the exact sequence of events. The researchers suggested that the haptic experience of holding the book and turning the pages might support the readers’ memory.

This study coincides with the latest media stories reporting a sharp decline in e-book sales over Christmas, while traditional books sales increased up to 11 per cent. Waterstones CEO, James Daunt, stated that Kindle sales had almost vanished in comparison to traditional books sales during the Christmas period.

However, both figures have to be treated with some scepticism, critics say. Of all the 50 students in the e-book and memory study, only two were regular e-book readers before they participated in the study, so the majority of test subjects were new to reading on screens. For children now growing up with e-books, it might be a different story.

Also, the drop in Kindle sales does by no means signify that people are not interested in e-books anymore. Part of the decline can be explained by the rise of the tablet. With the introduction of the iPad, a new device on which to read e-books appeared on the market. Today, many e-book readers, just as Francesca, do not save their digital books on a kindle reader, but simply on their tablet.

So, the recent decline in e-book sales and reported problems about concentration when reading on-screen do not signify the end of the e-book. Electronic resources have already changed the way we read and study dramatically, and it will be impossible to reverse this development, especially after the introduction of the iPad and similar tablets.

In fact, studies suggest that e-books take on a very particular role in students’ reading habits: they use e-books to quickly find specific information or as a solution for carrying many heavy books from home, to class and to the library. However, when it comes to reading a book cover-to-cover, they still prefer the traditional printed book.


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