“We Don’t Read That Way”

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Laura Braunstein, English Language and Literature Librarian at Dartmouth College.

I was chatting recently with a professor in my liaison department who was beginning research for a new book. Did she have everything she needed? Was there anything I should look into ordering? Yes, she said, the library was pretty well stocked with books and journals for the topic. However, many of the books she needed we only had as ebooks – for those, she would order print copies through interlibrary loan.

One of my colleagues had a similar experience. He was talking to several of his liaison faculty about a new ebook collection in the Humanities. The collection would be great, they told him, when they needed to look something up quickly, or search for a mention of a particular topic. But they would still want print books for serious study – ebooks weren’t the same, they told him, “we just don’t read that way.”

Many of these professors own Kindles or other ereaders, and love them – for reading the latest Ruth Rendell mystery on a six-hour flight to France to visit an archive. It’s one thing, they tell us, to read for pleasure on a screen – but it’s quite another to read for understanding, for critique, for engaging in the scholarly conversation. And this isn’t a generational matter – some of the faculty I know who seem most committed to print are younger than forty.

Does reading in the Humanities necessitate the long-form, linear, analog experience of the codex? Even when I tell these professors about the features available in some of the new ebook platforms – highlighting, annotation, sharing notes, etc – they still assert that they “just don’t read that way.” (And what applies to reading is even more crucial in writing – when it comes to tenure or promotion, they tell me, no monograph “born digital” would ever “count” in the way a print book would.)

Ebooks seem like sweet low-hanging fruit – they have enhanced searchability, accessibility at any time or place, and reduced storage and preservation costs. What’s not to love? Ebooks seem to make our students very happy. Often they don’t want to read a book cover to cover (although their professors might wish they would), and searching for relevant passages seems to satisfy their needs for many assignments. And journal literature seems exempt from the preference for print – I haven’t heard many complaints about deaccessioning back runs of print journals represented in JSTOR’s collections, for instance.

Is a user who routinely requests a print copy when the ebook is in the library’s holdings just multiplying the costs we thought we were saving? Should we deny these requests? Should we tell our Humanities faculty that even if they “just don’t read that way,” they should, because that’s the way the world of scholarly communication is moving in most other fields? Do we need to change their habits of reading, and habits of mind? Do we lead them to new formats or follow their preferences?

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

24 thoughts on ““We Don’t Read That Way””

  1. “Should we deny those requests?” Hmm. Why are we buying ebooks? Do we have users who look at print and say “we don’t read that way – I need ebooks”? Is that what we sense from students and is that why we buy ebooks? (and do we have actual evidence that they truly feel that way?) or do we buy them because they are easier for us? or … what, exactly? Great post!

  2. Perhaps the only answer to the conundrum you present is: Wait for the next generation of scholars.

    I agree with all the points you make about e-books. They are not just for reading, but searching – and present an additional set of resources for getting at that piece of information not likely to be found in a journal article. They have helped me to answer some tough reference questions.

    I’m not surprised we find members of the current generation of scholars rejecting them any more than I am that this generation also is largely resistant to open access scholarship, or would rather push a button and order an expensive textbook their students must purchase rather than assembling their own set of open learning materials. But all these things take time to learn and mentally adapt to – and many faculty don’t have that sort of time. I think it will take a lot of time for this change to happen – as in an entire generational shift. Thanks for starting a good conversation about this.

  3. Today’s academic ebook platforms (ebrary, etc.) make for an awful reading experience. When humanities professors can download a monograph as easily as they can a JSTOR article I suspect their complaints will subside.

  4. Laura, thanks for this post, great points! I have just had this conversation with the librarians who select the books I use for my research– if they are only available e, I ILL or purchase them. For me, for serious reading and research, e just doesn’t cut it in book form.

    Steven, I feel somewhat defensive about your response (no surprise there, I know!). I’m an ereader, exactly as Laura describes, If I’m reading for pleasure I prefer to read e. But when a book crosses from pleasure to sparking research interest, I have to read it on paper (I have bought Jaron Lanier’s ‘You are not a gadget” twice. The first as an e book, and once I started it and realized it wasn’t just pleasant nonfic, I bought, and finished it, in print.

    I question whether this is generational? Or if treating it as generational does a disservice to scholarship? A searchable ebook is fantastic for searching, for solving reference questions, ready reference, quote-snagging, etc. But I suspect the *devices* are not there yet for long-form reading research and markup.

    Again, Laura thanks for the thoughtful post!

  5. I’m definitely like the faculty member you mention. I love reading books for fun on my ereader, but when it comes to reading for research, I need the fixity of the codex (or printed PDF copies of journal articles). For me, part of the issue is that there is a physical aspect to reading and comprehending and remembering. I don’t even mark up my books when I do research, so the tools available for ereaders aren’t really what would work for me. What I mean by that is that I recall what I read in the physical context of where the idea was located in the book (near the front, near the middle, etc.) and on the page. This physical-location aspect of reading and remembering disappears in the ereader format, unfortunately. I suppose it’s possible to relearn how to remember things from books without those physical markers, but I’m not sure how….

  6. Interesting post. It seems to me the criticisms of humanities scholars for not wanting to read ebooks show too much bias towards what librarians and students might like. Students rarely read scholarly books all the way through. They want to search to get short relevant bits to pop into a “research” essay. They don’t engage the text at length as serious scholars, except of course when they do, and then they want print books. Ebooks are perfect for the majority of students.

    Steven’s comment about ebooks is especially telling: “They are not just for reading, but searching – and present an additional set of resources for getting at that piece of information not likely to be found in a journal article. They have helped me to answer some tough reference questions.” That’s a very librarian kind of response. But humanities scholars aren’t reading a book to find a “piece of information,” nor are they trying to answer reference questions.

    Scholarly humanities books don’t report the results of research; they ARE the results of research, and they often enough present long, detailed analyses / interpretations / arguments regarding their subjects. They aren’t usually meant to be read as a series of small bits of information that can be extracted without effort. The scholarly monograph has long been a significant means of scholarly communication in the humanities, and there’s not much evidence that will change soon. It doesn’t matter what other fields are doing, because other fields aren’t the humanities and aren’t typically producing 400 page monographs as a major means of scholarly communication.

    As for journal articles, if there’s no protest among humanities faculty, it’s likely because they’re printing out individual articles. That’s the case with plenty I’ve talked to.

  7. I think we have no evidence this is generational. But if I’m wrong – if there’s research that says younger people are more likely to prefer e formats than older people – I would love to see it.

  8. (I also submit that being pro-open access may actually jibe nicely with being anti ebook, as one of the glaring issues with ebooks as they are largely being rolled out in libraries and on shopping platforms is that publishers retain far more control than they do of print.)

  9. This is hearsay paraphrasing…and it’s not really about how we “read” ebooks, but more how we use them… a faculty member said that the problem with e-books is that you can only open one at a time — that you can’t spread them all out in front of you on a big table, and stare at them, waiting for that *idea* to jump out at you. I get that. I have had the same feeling lately, writing a lit review. I am using ejournals, and am committed to not printing anything. What I want is a giant (GIANT) screen to act as my table where I can spread everything out and look at it all at once.

  10. When I said “next generation” I wasn’t merely referring to current college students versus current faculty. I’m thinking more like the 3-year olds who are learning to read on ipads. Do you think that generation will be equally resistant to ebooks – and ask to be given print for their research? I think not – but I may be proven wrong. Time will tell. But no, I don’t have any evidence either other then what I observe with the patrons I encounter.

  11. In a recent survey from the Libraries, we asked a question of students, faculty and teaching staff about preferences of electronic vs. print. Among those with a preference, there was a strong preference for e- when it came to journal articles, but for fiction, it was a very strong preference for print. For undergrads, that preference for print in fiction was even stronger. The survey just closed, so we are just beginning our analysis, but I thought it was fascinating that there was a very noticeable disparity among preferences depending on type of material.

  12. I agree with Paul Lai. I am using an ereader for MLIS course readings (mostly .pdfs, which are not annotatable), and I recall last semester (before the e-reader) how easily I could relocate material I wanted for my term paper (i.e. the bottom backside of a page with blue ink). With the ereader, I have made extensive notes in a notebook, but have to read the whole note before I may recall what I was thinking. I hear Kindle allows tweets of notable quotes, but again, that only applies to ePUB books, not PDFs of blogs or course reserves. The tweets would be searchable. I have gone the other way myself and ordered ebooks for courses because I couldn’t wait the week or more for postal delivery (I live in the hills).

  13. My number one problem with my students writing is that they just cherry pick quotes from novels or theory by searching for them and not reading the context. Often the quotes are saying something entirely different! The type of reading you are describing may “satisfy their needs” to finish an assignment, but we all need to be working together to remind them that it is unacceptable.

  14. What no one in this discussion seems to be realizing is that the current versions of e-books and their technologies do not adequately meet the needs of humanities scholars. Take a look/listen to Jim O’Donnell’s “A Scholar Gets a Kindle and Starts to Read” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clUNDS3xgb0).
    Simply put, scholars can’t do their scholarship with the current generation of e-readers. The print codex allows for skipping back and forth, putting texts side by side, easy references to locations, and even annotations (if you own the copy).

    The new generation we need to wait for is the new generation of e-readers, not necessarily the new generation of scholars. The old one is proving adept at learning to use the online world for new forms of scholarship and at least some of us are waiting for a technology that will do what we need to do and not lock us into a strictly linear use of texts that does not even work for literature scholars.

    “Should we tell our Humanities faculty that even if they “just don’t read that way,” they should, because that’s the way the world of scholarly communication is moving in most other fields? Do we need to change their habits of reading, and habits of mind? Do we lead them to new formats or follow their preferences?”

  15. Many University libraries rely on eBrary e-books. I particularly don’t like this service, as it confines you to reading on your computer screen, and prohibits printing more than a limited number of pages. For printed pages, the service creates a particularly low resolution image of the text (which disallows users from using OCR to create their own more useful fully functional PDF copies of the online book). Not only do we not read that way, but we don’t even read that way electronically. If my University library could figure out how to provide me with a fully functional PDF of the entire book, for as long as I want it, on whatever device I want, annotatable, copyable, share-able in most ways, then I’d be much more inclined to embrace ebooks. I’d read that way.

  16. These are very interesting issues. Considering the way humanities students work (finding the right passages to support their arguments in papers and assignments) and the way humanities scholars work (deep reading, long linear reading, back and forth, comparing many books simulataneously and manking annotations in books) it seems to mee that the e-bit of e-books does not suit the scholars and the book bit of e-books does not fit the students way of working.

    Whether humanites studies discourses should profit from scholars changing their publication habits and publish more in formats such as journal articles and wikipedia is a wholly different matter of course.

    When studying these questions I think it is wise to try and isolate factors. We could imaginne a scholar behind a desk with 10 relevant books at hand on the screen and as a pile of print copies. Who would prefer what, and why? And what improvements/changes in the currently still poorly developed e-books could make for a swing in preferred reading/studying habits?

    Of course in the real world there are more things to consider, especially the availabilty and accessibility of titles and the differences in effort needed to get them.

    For the moment I think scholars should just buy the print books if they want to do lenghty studying, reading and annotating. If out of print, they should be able to order a print on demand copy (instantly with an Espresso book machine).

    Publishers should stop being so backward in the way they offer scholarly e-books. They should be available in the same way as journals, in licenses allowing unlimited permant download. In the end, the total budget of libraries won’t grow, but it will be spent on publications from those publishers that make steps in removing obstacles in using the stuff. That is were publishers can innovate and compete.

    The format should be much smarter than PDF. I imagine a kind of enhanced mashup of new, much smarter and simpeler versions of arcobat,word,mendely,endnote facilitating reading, cross referencing, being able to conect (numbered?) passages, being able to use your voice and more. The technology exists.


  17. Is it more to do with the understanding and use of the tools that can go along with the ebook research? Annotations, bookmarking, highlighting, keeping a citation list, then pulling it all together?

    Tools like Zotero, goodreader in the ipad, zoho are these tools, along with preview, adobe acrobat pro – can annotate keep in files, move stuff around. Could it be rather than not ‘reading this way’ it is more I need the tools to help me read this way?

    I am an e-convert for research and once you have the tools working for you – you will never go back.

  18. Jeroen — did I read you right? Scholars should just buy their books, instead of hoping or expecting the library to carry them? because they want print??

    I’m stunned and flabbergasted at that assertion. Libraries serve the needs of scholars. If the scholars they are serving need print books to do their work, then libraries need to provide them. To flat out declare that “we don’t serve scholars, go to the bookstore” is to have a radically new and different understanding of libraries than has existed over the last millenium or more.

    Did you mean to say that? Or am I misreading you? Please, *please* say more.

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