America is going through a reading revolution, and none of us knows exactly where it will lead. But it bears watching because its impact will be felt by us all.
Here’s a great example of the kind of change we are experiencing. The Encyclopaedia Britannica announced that it would no longer produce a print version. It is going exclusively online. First published in 1768 as a part of the Scottish Enlightenment, for many generations this set of books — all 32 volumes and 33,000 pages — was the tangible embodiment of human learning. Its very name reflects this: in ancient Greek encyclopedia means “complete knowledge.”
While not everyone has feelings for the demise of the printed version of the once mighty Britannica, many do have deep attachments to traditional books. In homes throughout the country, printed and bound sheets of paper are treasured possessions, placed on shelves in public view, to be seen and admired by visitors. They are awarded these exalted positions for a simple reason: They played important parts in our lives. Books helped us understand the world, provided comfort in times of need, created paths to academic and professional success.
The impact of books extends well beyond our personal histories. Their role in shaping society cannot be overstated. For centuries, the printed word has been the primary way we store and spread the knowledge that underpins our arts, culture, government and sciences. They are also the way we create a common cultural currency.
But the world is changing. Traditional books are on the decline. Use of iPads, Kindles and Nooks is shooting through the roof. Last December, 18 percent of Americans owned a digital reading device. After the 2011 holiday season, this number jumped to 29 percent. And there is no indication that sales will slow down. Add that half of Americans have smart phones and three-quarters have home computers, and you have a potential reading revolution. And while electronic books only represented about 9 percent of book sales in the United States as of mid-2010, this is triple the rate in 2009.
So why is moving from paper to pixels such a big deal? Here are just a few of the issues being raised.
l It used to be that once a book was printed, the text would remain unchanged for extended periods. Not so any more. Authors can update their works and almost instantaneously create a new version. Electronic books are far less bound by time and space.
l Print books rely on written words and pictures. Electronic books can expand to include music and other sounds, animation, and movies. The possible outcome is less traditional reading.
l New technologies make it simpler and cheaper to produce and distribute books, both electronic and hard copy. Control of the editing and publication process is now more diffuse. The result may be far more publications.
l With so many new kinds of reading sites such as blogs and wikis, demand for traditional length books may decline. On the other hand, the convenience of electronic readers may encourage people to read more.
l Some say that increased technology has made information more accessible, others that technology has benefitted those with more resources. The equity question has yet to be resolved.
l We simply do not know whether electronic reading has the same cognitive impact as reading from paper.
And what about America’s 122,000 libraries? What will happen to these? Just look at the traffic at one major university library, Kansas University: seven locations, more than 1.5 million annual visits (equivalent of 58 visits per student), 300,000 items checked out, 3 million online articles accessed, 4 million volumes housed and home to irreplaceable book collections including comprehensive first edition collections of James Joyce and William Butler Yeats.
Current sales show that we have a ways to go before paper books and traditional libraries become obsolete. But we know that the future of books, as with so many other parts of our modern world, is in a state of rapid transition. And while we must embrace the future, until we are sure of the alternatives and their consequences, the old kind of reading may be one of those areas that needs to be preserved.