ATG NewsChannel Original: Looking Deeply at Reading in a Digital Age, Part 2

by NaNancy Hertherncy K. Herther

(Part 2 of a 2 part series – read part 1 here.)

In 2008, the Christian Science Monitor became “the first national newspaper to switch from daily print to online—though, perhaps to hedge its bets, it will launch a weekly print edition.” In 2012, Newsweek famously ended its print edition with a cover story that asserted print was dead, due to some type of Darwinian evolution of media; yet under new management that year, print was revived. So much of the initial reaction to the rise of the internet as a media disruption—clearly the fears and forecasts of this era of the digital transition haven’t proven to be the single-lane highway that many had claimed.

In February 2015, the Association of Research Libraries published its futuristic Strategic Thinking and Design Initiative, which foresees by the year 2033 that academic libraries will “have shifted from its role as a knowledge service provider within the university to become a collaborative partner within a rich and diverse learning and research ecosystem.” The framework focuses on the development of “collective collections…deep and wide platforms for ensuring knowledge resources are available.” Details yet to be developed, this aggressive, new move by research libraries appears dependent on the digitization of library materials with some type of centralized access across institutions. How this unfolds by 2033 will be interesting to follow. Are academic libraries ready to rely on digital resources alone? Is this possible? What impact would this have on teaching, learning and research? Even if doable, is this desirable?

The research on print versus online reading isn’t absolutely clear; however reports of the death of print are clearly off-base. Studies are providing no simple answers at this point, showing a much more nuanced picture of reading preferences and roles. In Europe, a major push is looking at the impact of digitization on reading.

In one recent Norwegian study, titled “Somewhere in the book and when in the story? Comparing comprehension when reading a mystery story in print and on Kindle,” Anne Mangen and colleagues gave 50 people the task of reading a mystery story—half on a Kindle and half as a paperback. The researcher’s assumption was that the Kindle might provide a more successful mode as was found in previous studies. Instead, “the Kindle readers performed significantly worse on the plot reconstruction measure, i.e., when they were asked to place 14 events in the correct order…[suggesting that] the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does.” Another study, coauthored by Mangen comparing reading of fiction and nonfiction on an iPad versus print, found that “independently of prior experience with reading on electronic media, readers in the iPad condition reported dislocation within the text and awkwardness in handling their medium. Also, iPad readers who believed they were reading nonfiction were less likely to report narrative coherence and transportation, while booklet readers who believed they were reading nonfiction were, if anything, more likely to report narrative coherence.”


Issue 1: Touch & Feel

Research on the tactile experiences of reading on paper still most often find that many people are not able to as easily navigate long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way when using electronic presentations, further these types of navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension. However, even studies of preschoolers show a role for each medium in different applications.

Issue 2: Comprehension

Another recent study found that, “while printed books are most conducive to learning from longer, more difficult texts, e-readers and computer displays offer convenience and some distinct advantages to readers in particular situations.” A study of using electronic texts to enhance special education learning “demonstrated the importance of factors we had not fully considered in planning the action research project, including the learning curve students experience using new technology. Student literacy skills showed no significant gains as a result of our intervention. We did improve on how to incorporate technology into our classrooms and in understanding how to complete a study on reading comprehension. We also learned how district controlled pieces, such as IT support, professional development, choice based costs, etc., impact teacher effectiveness.”

Issue 3: Convenience

Some see ebooks as most convenient; others believe print is still best. Certainly if you have a huge stackebooks of textbooks or other tomes, an ebook is a great way to save on stress and strain—plus it’s searchable. Print, on the other hand, is ownable, doesn’t require internet connections or battery power. The research here is very uneven, seemingly reflecting the individual nature of these two very different media for texts. Age of reader—from preschool through old age—has also produced contradictory research results

Studies provide evidence pro and con on issues such as physical discomfort (eyestrain, headaches, etc.), concentration versus distraction factors, book sharing, notetaking, and other issues. Clearly, there is today no definitive research to back the superiority or dominance of either mode.

Maybe Print Isn’t Dead, It’s Just Smarter

Magazines seem to be ahead of book publishers along the digital adaptation/adoption curve. Bill Phillips, editor in chief of Men’s Health, noted recently that “print is here to stay. We treat print and digital as separate, but complementary businesses. We have 13 million men and women reading the print magazine, but we also have 12 million to 13 million unique visitors online per month.” Their research finds that “online readers are five years younger than our print audience,” and “a bit brand agnostic, they often come in through side doors, such as Twitter or Facebook, and though they are aware of Men’s Health or have an affinity for the brand, they don’t come in with the same passion and expectations of the print readers. They move on quicker, but for print readers, each issue is an event.”

Lucky editor in chief Eva Chen also sees a future for print magazines. “ It used to be that when you got home you would pick up a magazine and get lost in it. People are now on their iPads and their iPhones, watching TV, watching something like the Grammy’s and live-tweeting it at the same time. The nature of the way people unwind is very different now. I do always think there’s going to be a role for print, for newspapers and fashion, but it will change in the coming years to be much more of a complementary experience, an experience of supplementation versus a primary source. More places will turn to a digital first environment, where digital leads and the magazine feels more like a collectible in a way.”

Jacob Cockcraft, founder of The Pigeonhole, sees a serialized future for books. “We live in a world of distraction, one in which information comes in a digestible digital format—to our computers, our tablets, our phones, and soon, our watches. The traditional publishing model has been forced to adapt, shifting its focus from the physical and so creating space for a crop of new reading platforms like Oyster, Scribd and Glose….We’ve tried to create the best of both worlds; publishing hand-picked new books along with the best content from traditional publishers and serializing it all to your phone, tablet, Kindle or laptop….The idea is to create a genuinely immersive reading experience, one that connects authors and readers through the portal to another world….The serialized format also allows for innovative content, such as real-time writing and fast-paced short story series….We believe that reading gives people a crucial advantage in our increasingly competitive world, so the publishing industry must utilize the technology available, and include authors in this process, or risk losing the coming generations.” So many possibilities, so many visions, yet no clear path or vision for the future. For the meantime, don’t discount the tried-and-true print—it still clearly has a future.

The Ereading Dilemma

Words Onscreen book jacketIn her excellent, thought-provoking book, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (Oxford University Press, 2015), American University professor Naomi S. Baron notes that “however you dice it, we want young people to delve into materials with a mindset prepared to take a reasoned, objective stand rather than memorizing or shooting opinions from the hip. What kind of materials? Largely written, and these days, there’s the rub. We teach the next generation to decipher words on a page, but as the form of what constitutes a page shifts, so does the nature of reading….Like all technologies, print books and digital screens come with their own affordances, that is, things they’re particularly well suited to do. Print is easy to annotate, gives readers a physical sense of place in a book, and has aesthetic properties that even teenagers and young adults continue to value. Digital screens are excellent tools for skimming rapidly or zeroing in on just the passage you’re looking for.”

“The ways we use technologies lead us to develop particular habits of mind. With print, even though we might skim and scan, the default mindset is continuous reading. It’s also focusing on what we’re reading, even though sometimes our thoughts wander. Digital technologies engender a different set of habits and practices. Their default state is what I call reading on the prowl….Studies I have done with university students in several countries confirm what I bet you’ll find yourself observing: When reading either for (school) work or pleasure, the preponderance of students found it easiest to concentrate when reading in print. They also reported multitasking almost three times as much when reading onscreen as when reading in hardcopy.”

Critical Thinking Skills

Thinking Fast  SlowDeep reading takes time, patience, and effort. Economics Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011) distinguishes between “fast (System 1) and slow (System 2) thinking, reminding us that even when System 2 might be called for, we humans tend to get lazy and defer to the rapid, instinctual judgments of System 1. When we read online, the deck is stacked against System 2 thinking, deep reading, and critical thinking.”

“I don’t worry that we’ll become dumb because of the internet,” notes Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University “But I worry we will not use our most preciously acquired deep reading processes because we’re just given too much stimulation. That’s, I think, the nub of the problem…Sure, those with ironclad discipline can read, think, and analyze regardless of the reading medium. For the rest of us mortals—like over 90 percent of the college students I surveyed—concentration and digital screens don’t generally mix.”

In her popular treatise, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (NY: HarperCollins, 2008), Wolf provides a fascinating history of the science of reading. In terms of evolution,Proust  the Squid bookjacket reading is a recently acquired cultural invention that developed by using existing brain structures for what was a radically new skill. Reading, in fact, is an unnatural process that is acquired by learning. As a cognitive neuroscientist, Wolf books demonstrate how advances in evolutionary history and cognitive neuroscience are revealing “the complex beauty of the reading process,” the protean capacity of the brain making us able to “change what is given to us by nature … We are, it would seem from the start, genetically poised for breakthroughs.” Breakthroughs, yes, and, with our digital age, the potential for losing our capacity for deep reading and learning.

A Complex Issue With No Easy Answer

The advantages of ebooks don’t evade Baron—the convenience, “democratizing access to the written,” the encouragement of reading extensively, etexts that can be searched easily for specific information or facts—this can lighten any student’s load. However, the drawbacks are clear as well. “Computers and now tablets and mobile phones were not designed for lengthy, focused reading. Searching, skimming, polishing off short texts. Only reading something once….Digital devices inherently provoke distraction, whatever else you are trying to do.” The list of “the kinds of reading that digital devices generally discourage,” according to Wolf includes the following:

  • Reading longer texts
  • Rereading
  • Deep reading
  • Memory of what you have read (which is often aided by handwritten annotation)
  • Individual (rather than primarily social) encounters with books
  • Stumble-upon possibilities
  • Strong emotional involvement
Maryanne Wolf

Maryanne Wolf

A recent Pew Research Center report found that over half of American adults own either a tablet or other ereading device; yet only 4% report being “ebook only” in their reading preferences. Clearly both electronic texts and printed works have their places today—and research is now telling us that this is likely to continue, negating the claims that “print is dead.”

As Wolf reminds us “If Jakob Nielsen is right about how little we read on a web page; if the University College London study is correct in characterizing academics as doing power browsing, not reading; if students whom my colleagues and I have surveyed are accurately reporting that they don’t remember as much when they read onscreen as when reading in hardcopy—is the significance of words consumed on digital devices being reduced to that of snack food?”

Is This the New Normal?


Daniel Levitin

In his book, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload (Dutton Levitin1Penguin, 2014), McGill University neuroscientist Daniel Levitin provides clear evidence that the proliferation of technological devices and the growing internet has done nothing to contain or reduce the glut of information we all face daily. Each day, he explains, we are bombarded with the informational equivalent of 175 newspapers and a half-million books’ worth of words. His concern is for the pressure this places on our ability of the brain’s attentional system to sift through this glut to determine significance and what gets passed through to one’s conscious awareness.


Although people promote the idea that technology is allowing us to multitask, Levitin instead proves that multitasking has a significant metabolic cost. By switching back and forth between tasks, we burn more oxygenated glucose (the brain’s fuel) than focusing on one task does, and this leads to mental exhaustion. “Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get from a friend,” Levitin explains, “is competing for resources in your brain with important things like whether to put your savings in stocks or bonds, where you left your passport, or how to best reconcile with a close friend you just had an argument with.” Perhaps the promised paperless library, paperless office, is nothing more than a chimera—a pipe dream from the dreams of some marketing project—and less the ultimate future of reading.

“The real question,” Wolf concludes, “is whether the affordances of reading onscreen lead us to a new normal. One in which length and complexity and annotation and memory and rereading and especially concentration are proving more challenging than when reading in hardcopy. One in which we are willing to say that if the new technology doesn’t encourage these approaches to reading, maybe these approaches aren’t so valuable after all. Is this the new normal we want? In case not, the ball is in your court.”

Baron reminds ATG readers that “the publishing industry (including strong proponents of eReading) are increasingly speaking of a ‘both/and’ book model. The Association of American Publishers reports that eBooks growth rate leveled off to only 3.8 % last year. Print is selling, and many independent bookstores are gaining firm footholds. That said, we have yet to work out reading patterns that best suit each medium. In both the U.S. and the U.K., fiction—especially genre fiction—accounts for the bulk of eBook sales. Reference materials are also finding a useful home online.”

“Yet many tend to make the mistake of assuming that other types of reading function equally well

Naomi S. Baron

Naomi S. Baron

digitally,” Baron cautions. “At least for most readers, that assumption doesn’t hold true. If you want to muse as you go rather than only rushing forward, if you plan to re-read, if you find the tactile experience important—holding pages or writing on them in your own hand—then print remains the better reading platform. Those with abundant self-control can turn off distractions on their digital devices and concentrate on the words onscreen. However, the number of people possessing such will power turns out to be very small indeed.”

In 1938, a story ran in the New York Times on the impending demise of the pencil due to the development of manual typewriters: “Blue pencil, red pencil, what should we do without them? Yet writing with one’s own hand seems to be disappearing, and the universal typewriter may swallow all. Librarians of a century or two hence may be searching for the last reference to pencils.” (“Of Lead Pencils,” August 22, 1938, p.12) In the early 1980s, with the invention of compact discs, vinyl record sales plummeted. By the turn of the century, CD sales were being replaced by downloads. But that isn’t the end of the story. In the last ten years vinyl has surged, with over one million platters being sold last year in the U.K. alone. Prognostication is still more of an art than a science and, clearly, as Mark Twain noted in terms of his own mortality, “the report of my death was an exaggeration.”


“Global Vinyl Sales Graph In US$” by Poiuytre – Computer graph Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia ]

Brandon Keim noted in a recent Wired article: “Maybe it’s time to start thinking of paper and screens another way: Not as an old technology and its inevitable replacement, but as different and complementary interfaces, each stimulating particular modes of thinking. Maybe paper is a technology uniquely suited for imbibing novels and essays and complex narratives, just as screens are for browsing and scanning.” Perhaps at least part of the new normal is more normal than we’ve been lead to believe.

Nancy K. Herther is Librarian for American Studies, Anthropology, Asian American Studies & Sociology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus.

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