Should Web Workers Prefer Books to E-Books?

Most web workers I know are always reading — to research client needs, to update their own skills, and for pleasure. A recent study indicates printed books are still preferred over electronic educational materials in learning environments.

The study by the Book Industry Study Group (BISG), a trade group representing both print and digital publishers, found that 75 percent of college students prefer print textbooks over electronic versions. Reasons for preferring print included “fondness for print’s look and feel, as well as its permanence and ability to be resold.”

This suggests that the preference for printed books will decrease once e-books become comparatively cheaper than paper books, and when they become as easy (or easier) to resell. But for researchers and web workers alike, printed books provide significant advantages that go far beyond “new book smell” or intelligent margin notes made by a previous owner.

Sensory Advantages

Readers can have multiple hard-copy texts open simultaneously for at-a-glance cross-referencing: something that’s far more difficult when you have just one screen on which to view e-books. This, together with the larger page size of many printed books, means they can be shared among groups of researchers more easily.

More information is often available in a single view in print books than in an e-book, even if you’re using an iPad (s aapl) or large-format Kindle DX (s amzn). Also, researchers can take in the key features of an adjoining print page.

I tend to remember where to find particular pieces of information, based on my memory of looking at the content on the page: was it on the left-hand side of the spread, or the right? My books also tend to have saw-tooth rows of color-coded sticky notes down their page edges. Electronic bookmarks and apps like iAnnotate can’t replace the ability to augment existing pages to more easily tell where a needed piece of information lies; e.g., it’s at the second pink sticky note, or half-way down the page that has the fifth yellow sticky note. I can see this information from across the room, and without opening the book.

Of course, there are other sensory considerations that help me remember where to find information in printed books, such as:

  • How much of the book was I holding in each hand (that is, how far through the book did the content appear)?
  • Was it before or after that wrinkled page that got wet in the rain that day I was reading at the park?

This plethora of “extraneous” sensory information makes it easier to recall not just where pieces of information can be found, but, often, the information itself.

Learning Advantages

Printed books don’t have a handy search function, it’s true, though many have indexes. But as I’ve suggested,  search is among the least of the tools that we need in order to absorb new knowledge. Taking in new concepts, language, and philosophies often requires us to construct entirely new mental schematics. In our minds, we may relate the physical layouts of printed books to our new mental maps, and to the information contained in these maps.

Printed books currently make for a richer, more memorable, and more easily understood learning experience than today’s electronic offerings can provide.  The real questions are: How long will these advantages last? And how will developer of e-readers and e-books make their products more useful for the sorts of research that web workers do?

Do you prefer print or e-books for learning?

Image by user lusi.

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