I had some spam article from Skylight Press pushed to my Facebook feed by Business Insider. The clickbait reads “A new study shows that students learn way more effectively from print textbooks than screens.” So first off, it is not new, it is from 2017. Secondly, you won’t be surprised by how hard it is to measure “way more effectively.” The research that the article supposedly references does not make any such conclusion. The research says that “overall, results suggest that medium plays an influential role under certain text or task conditions or for certain readers.”
The article gives some fairly weak reasons to possibly and maybe considering print over text but then it goes into my favorite trope: “There may be economic and environmental reasons to go paperless. But there’s clearly something important that would be lost with print’s demise. In our academic lives, we have books and articles that we regularly return to. The dog-eared pages of these treasured readings contain lines of text etched with questions or reflections.”
Or we don’t. I would typically ignore articles like this (TL;DR?) but it caught my attention because of something pretty near wonderful that happened to me this week. I am working on an article about Napoleon and Goethe, and I am looking for Napoleon’s copy of Werther (his favorite book). Very ambitious of me. I can’t find it but I did find someone who had. Sarah De Laredo wrote a pamphlet in 1927 that is a description of Napoleon’s copy of Werther. It was in two libraries: the University of Alberta and Yale. I sent a one line email to the special collections at Yale and they very graciously walked me through registering as an independent scholar and requesting a digital copy of the pamphlet. I got that today. I cannot afford to fly to New Haven; I do not have access to these libraries. The digital world provides people like me a connection to a world of scholarship that would be forever closed off and forgotten otherwise.
Ironically, I wound up reading “The Sorrows of Young Werther” from Gutenberg.net on my Kindle and my phone because I really didn’t want to buy a copy of it. I understood the text, highlighted it, and made notes just like a real book. I am not sure what my preferences are here – I think the digital or print question is a false dichotomy. I needed the information, so I was motivated to engage digitally. On top of all this, there are now online annotation tools like Hypothes.is that allow users to highlight and comment on texts privately or as a community. In other words, in the future, someone might wonder what my thoughts were on a text and they don’t have to go to the library or have a library make a copy – they can go online and look at my annotations.