Books vs. Screens, Revisited

Ever since digital (vs. printed) books burst upon the scene several years ago, librarians – and not a few library users – have been pondering the various advantages and disadvantages of traditional books vs. e-books.

Having read numerous lists of these pros and cons, I thought it might be interesting to collate that information into a single list.

The list is focused on the pros and cons from the point of view of the individual non-specialist adult reader (rather than publishers, advertisers, retailers, or authors). What’s being compared is the traditionally printed book and its digitized manifestation on the screen of a portable (vs. desktop) device with an internet connection (rather than a device without a connection).

An attempt was made to group the most crucial similarities and differences first, with the less crucial ones listed last.

Printed Books vs. Screened Books: Pros & Cons

Characteristic

Feature

Printed Books

Electronic

Books

Convenience

Can you read it without any equipment or software?

YES

NO

Can you read it without an external power source?

YES

NO

If interrupted while being read, can the reader, without machine
assistance, mark his place instantly, and instantly find that place later?

YES

NO

Is it lightweight and small enough to be portable?

YES

YES

Are multiple titles
conveniently portable?

NO

YES

Availability of Titles

Are there currently more titles to choose from than the alternative?

YES

NO

Can you access available titles without an Internet connection?

YES

NO

Is there sometimes a waiting period to obtain a given title?

YES

YES

Are public domain titles often free?

NO

YES

Cost to Reader

of Individual Titles

Is the cost of the title itself the only significant cost?

YES

NO

Cheaper than the alternative to purchase?

Sometimes

Sometimes

Durability

Content stable (vs. potentially volatile or unstable)

YES

NO

Can you drop or scratch it without potentially damaging it?

YES

NO

Once purchased, is it technically difficult for someone to tamper
with the text without your knowledge?

YES

NO

A hundred years from now, will the title’s content be instantly readable
without a machine?

YES

NO

Legibility

Is the content presented in a near-universally standardized, nearly
universally-familiar format?

YES

NO

Is text easy to read in low or no light?

NO

YES

Ownership

Does the title belong permanently to the buyer?

YES

Sometimes

Can the title be easily loaned to a friend?

YES

NO

Can one eventually assemble a large library of titles?

YES

YES

Storage

Can the extent of one’s library be determined at a glance (i.e.  without consulting a machine)?

YES

NO

Do multiple titles require less space to store, compared to the
alternative format?

NO

YES

Can multiple titles be neatly stored without obtaining
special-purpose furniture?

NO

YES

Customization

Can one permanently highlight words or phrases?

YES

NO

Can one add comments to the text of the title?

YES

YES

Can one easily remove comments made to the text?

NO

YES

Can factual errors and typos be easily corrected?

NO

YES

Can content be instantly updated?

NO

YES

Can hyperlinks to additional text and/or photos and/or videos be
embedded in the text?

NO

YES

Can you use it to define words in the text?

NO

YES

Searchability

Searchable by word and/or phrase?

NO

YES

Convertibility

of Content

to Other Formats

Can content be instantly converted into a different presentation
format (e.g. visual to audial)?

NO

YES

Can selected passages be quickly copied?

NO

YES

Psychological Aspects

Is it satisfying to hold in one’s hands, compared to its alternative?

YES

NO

Can one enjoy the momentary experience of catching sight of a
highly-regarded title lying in view on a table, or on a shelf?

YES

NO

Is the cover art part of the reading experience?

YES

NO

Can the time required to read a given title be instantly estimated?

YES

NO

Is it attractive to look at, compared to its alternative?

YES

NO

Is it easy to quickly browse multiple titles simultaneously?

YES

NO

Is a given title easy to scan for the purposes of deciding whether or
not to immediately purchase that title?

YES

NO

Can onlookers readily determine what you’re reading?

YES

NO

Is the format, compared with its alternative, associated with
powerful if difficult-to-articulate historical or nostalgic factors?

YES

NO

Environmental Aspects

Does its production, compared to its alternative, involve few toxic
plastics and chemicals?

YES

NO

Can no-longer-needed titles be conveniently recycled to for the
benefit of other readers?

YES

NO

Are insignificant numbers of trees destroyed in the production of new
titles?

NO

YES

Can surplus copies of titles be destroyed without environmental
impact?

NO

YES

Can a new title be obtained without involving a transport vehicle?

NO

YES

Tangential/

Incidental  Uses

Is it potentially useful for propping up furniture?

YES

NO

Is it useful for storing/transporting other thin items (notes, cards,
grocery lists, etc.)?

YES

NO

Is it useful for concealing
small items (either thin ones or, if one hollows it out, not-so-thin
valuables)?

YES

NO

Is it useful for pressing flowers?

YES

NO

Is it a practical object for impulsively whacking someone over the
head with, or throwing across the room?

YES

NO

Can it be used to search the Internet or send an email?

NO

YES

So what did I miss? Let me know and I’ll fold into the chart those aspects I overlooked.

Meanwhile, our conclusion is that the general answer to the question of printed pages vs. screens is that both formats are (a) useful in different circumstances, and (b) here to stay. Television didn’t make the movies extinct, and many readers are likely to continue prefering – for reading some things, the printed page; for other things, a screen.

Advertisements

3 Responses to Books vs. Screens, Revisited

  1. Roger ('tis me!) says:

    Well as someone who loves the printed page and is resisting mightily the idea of buying an e-reader, I definitely think the printed book has advantages. However, I do think your list could be argued over mightily and is obviously written by a person who, like me, prefers the printed page!

  2. Can multiple titles be neatly stored without obtaining
    special-purpose furniture? I am compelled to say this is not the case. Special purpose? You can stack a pile of books in the corner of the room. You can sit on the floor, sleep on it and eat off it. You can also throw your ebook in the corner of the room. Why are shelves “special”? We all need furniture. I agree with the sentiment that books make shelves special, but thats different.

    Can surplus copies of titles be destroyed without environmental
    impact? Burn them for energy – if they are FSC they are at least carbon neutral. Bury them in abandoned mines. We need to start putting carbon back into the ground.

    I am not against ereaders, I am pro books. Thank you for the work on the list, great to read it.

  3. Misty Granger says:

    You can hold and read an ebook easily with one hand, which is an advantage over some books.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: