TT #63: The Book-less Library

By Kyra-lin Hom

Inspired by Apple and Steve Jobs, San Antonio's Bexar County, Texas has revealed its plans for BiblioTech, the nation's first book-less public library. The $1.5 million plan includes a 4,989 square-foot space, 100 e-readers available for check out, 50 e-readers for children (and also an interactive kids' 'play' area with touch-screen tables and the like), 50 computer stations, 25 laptops, 25 tablets and not one single printed book.

Response to the proposal is mixed. Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff is inspired, ready to step into the future. County inhabitants are just plain excited to be getting a library, period. And not just a few library higher-ups and education psychology researchers are wary, worrying the move is “premature.”

Santa Rosa, California tried something similar in 2002 only to cave to tradition when library users requested with increasing frequency that print versions be available. The library is now a fairly standard combination of print and tech. Still, that was over ten years ago.

BiblioTech is a potential step into the future. It won't need the space to house thousands of books, and it just might bring previously lost parties back into the library system. Critics worry that this modern, tech-only approach will alienate individuals on the far side of the technology gap.

Less prospective and more concrete, though, is the problem of e-book licensing – a process in much need of revision itself. Publishing companies are very selective about which books are converted to e-books and even more selective about where those e-books are allowed to 'be.' Proponents of the new library boast of having 10,000 e-books available for circulation with more being available every year. Yes, that sounds like a big number, but how much is that really?

Let's compare that number with those of, for example, the New York Public Library. The NY Library has 35,000 e-books in circulation. So larger quantities are possible. But it has 20 million printed books. The discrepancy is due largely to licensing. A library that consists only of e-books is going to be, relatively, very limited.

Pros and cons of this new library form aside, what worries me is the extreme push for e-books that this quite obviously demonstrates. Is this really advisable? I know, I know. I'm one of the younger generations. I should be pushing hard for this switch – lover of technology and all that. But research studies (minus one from Germany) are showing that e-books and reading off of a screen are less effective ways to learn than reading from a printed source.

For one thing, we read slower when reading from a screen than from a page. Not significantly slower if the e-book is formatted well and the screen size is decently large, but enough to add up over time. A study from 2010 concluded that reading from an iPad is 6.2% slower and a Kindle 10.7% slower.

More importantly is how well we absorb and retain the material we read. There is a difference between 'knowing' something and 'remembering' it. When we know something, the answer pops into our heads like magic. When we remember something, it takes us a moment. We have to expend energy to recall. According to research by Kate Garland, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Leicester in England, information read from an electronic source is generally remembered while that read from a printed source is usually known. E-book readers can catch up, it just takes more repetition of the material.

Anne Mangen, author of the article “Hypertext fiction reading: haptics and immersion” published in the Journal of Research in Reading in 2008, blames the “ontologically intangible” nature of electronic text. In the more layman words of neuroscientist Mark Changizi, “In nature, information comes with a physical address.” We don't just remember facts. We remember them in the contexts they were learned. Printed material has more context and less potential for distraction than electronic hence retention is better.

Let's go one step further and look at children. A recent survey from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a New-York based non-profit organization dedicated to studying how children read, concluded that while young children 'interact' more with an electronic reading source they actually 'comprehend' more when using a printed one.

The research seems pretty clear to me. While great for high volume readers of fiction and less demanding texts (“high volume” because if you read less than 23 books in a year it's actually better for the environment to stick to traditional paper), e-books should not replace print when it comes to material you really want to internalize. Something my personal experience can definitely back up.

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