In praise of ebooks

A common discussion in libraries these days is on the merits of ebooks vs. print books. There is a great deal of anxiety, disinformation, and simplification of pros and cons on both sides of this debate. You can probably tell where my view fits in the spectrum of opinion thanks to the title of this post. In general, I favor ebooks and use them extensively in my own reading for pleasure as well as in my professional and graduate study reading.

The first problem in this debate is that it is frequently presented as an either/or situation, a dichotomy. I don’t see it that way at all. I value print books and think they will continue to exist and be used for the foreseeable future. I support and hope for that, and I still rely on print books quite a lot of the time. An analogy to the print vs. ebook debate is TV vs. radio. Long after TV arrived on the scene, radio continues to thrive, and I don’t know anyone who now thinks of them as either/or. Rather, they are both/and. There are ways in which TV is hugely important, and there are also ways in which radio plays a significant role. They do not serve precisely the same functions, and that leads me to the second point.

Print books and ebooks are not really the same thing but in different formats. Rather, I’d argue that they function somewhat differently and meet somewhat different needs. Of course, they both primarily serve to convey textual information; I’m not quibbling about that. But ebooks allow for different approaches to study than print books, such as full text searching capability, for example, which print books cannot do even with an excellent index (something which not enough books possess). Ebooks allow for more variety in terms of information presentation than print books, for example, enabling integration of multimedia content or even annotations and comments from elsewhere, as well as built-in dictionaries for word definitions, in ways that print cannot achieve. However, there is the issue of reading comprehension, which is particularly contentious.

I’ve read article after article over the years of studies that conclude that online reading is detrimental in comparison to reading a print book, and for many people today, this is taken as gospel. Primarily the argument is that reading comprehension for online stuff is not as good as if readers used print works. That evidence seems deficient in some way. For one thing, those studies don’t adequately account for subtle but important differences in the way readers use ebooks or online texts vs. their print counterparts. I think this is a tremendously important thing to keep in mind, and worth exploring in more detail at some point. Another flaw in this criticism is that the vast majority of readers have not adequately adjusted their reading habits to the online environment yet. Also, the reading experience provided by online content, including ebooks, is not yet well-developed enough to adequately judge which format is better overall. I think we will see significant advances in online reading interfaces in the future that will change the calculus here.

But it’s a mistake to frame the question or debate in this way, as one format being “better” than the other. They are different, and are useful in their own ways, and I think we do not contemplate that enough when we talk about this issue. What follows are some things that I find particularly useful and praiseworthy about ebooks. Logically, I may seem to perpetuate the dichotomy argument I’m criticizing, although my intent is simply to offer a few counterpoints to some of the “print is better” arguments that aren’t often stated.

  • Dogs can’t chew on an ebook. My puppy has taken too many bites of print books, but she certainly can’t do that for my ebooks, and thank goodness for that.
  • Ebooks are significantly more portable and accessible wherever I go than print counterparts. That’s because I access and read them on all of my devices: MacBook Air, iPad, and iPhone. Yes, I know, all of those devices can theoretically run out of battery power, but the reality is that collectively, they don’t. Ever. And my ebook readings are nicely synced between them at all times.
  • I can annotate, highlight, and write notes about content on ebooks to my heart’s content, yet not do any longterm damage to the original content. I can’t begin to describe how irritating it is to read a book that someone else has written in. In my current graduate studies, I’ve been shocked to find how many print books from my college library are written in by previous users (pencil, pen, highlighter, sometimes all three), rendering many of these texts pretty much unusable to me. It’s a big problem that I don’t have with an ebook, and all of those annotations, highlights, and notes are integrated with the ebook, not separate from it in a notebook of some kind.
  • It is so much easier to look up particular passages of text in an ebook than in a print work.
  • My own reading comprehension hasn’t suffered because I choose to read an ebook vs. a print book. I’ve adapted my reading style and habits over more than two decades and am quite comfortable with reading online. Judging from the grades I’m getting in a very heavily text-based graduate program, my use of ebooks hasn’t had a negative effect at all.
  • There is a romanticism with which printed books are often imbued, and I think that’s ok and deserved and has its place. However, a print text does not allow me to adjust the font, font size, contrast, and low light reading functionality to what suits me best like an ebook can. These are functions I have come to value every bit as much as the traditional smell, touch, and feel of printed books.
  • It is much easier to copy, paste, and cite from an ebook than a print book when doing research, at least, for me.
Of course, there are significant problems with ebooks that I hope we will eventually move beyond. Chief among them is publishers’ overly controlling attitude toward copyright and licensing of ebooks that puts them legally in an entirely different category than print books. For example, even today, most libraries cannot readily lend ebooks to other library patrons in the way that we’ve done for forever with library books (the first sale doctrine). This is ridiculous and must be changed come hell or high water. Another big problem is how publishers and platforms have mucked up user interface options for ebooks, at times, making them darn near unusable. Certainly, there isn’t enough interface standardization among ebook providers, and this means that user experiences can and do vary widely depending on what platform is used. Pricing variations is also a big problem. Another huge issue is longterm preservation, currently very iffy with online content.
Overall, though, I like ebooks and will continue to use them for all kinds of reading needs when I can. I will do the same for print books as well, and do not accept the prevailing wisdom that pushes us towards one or the other. I like and use both in just the same way that I consume news and entertainment via TV, Internet, and radio, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

NOTE: The featured image for this post is courtesy of Antony Bennison.

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