September 22, 2017

Kindle or Print? Librarians Weigh In | Not Dead Yet

Cheryl LaGuardiaI don’t feel comfortable without a book nearby (a print book, that is). And the older I get, the more books I read at the same time; I’m usually in the midst of two or three. This is no boast, because I’ve religiously avoided reading serious literature ever since the course that required me to read Nausea and The Death of Ivan Illyich in the same week. Now I read mostly mysteries, which I could argue are, in fact, serious literature, but I don’t because then I wouldn’t want to read them anymore. I get a lot of paperbacks from Amazon, especially since I recently discovered how cheaply I can get used paperbacks there (I also get lots of used paperbacks from the Harvard Bookstore in the interest of supporting brick and mortar bookstores).

Then one of my favorite mystery writers released a novella only in a Kindle version available through Amazon. I broke down, downloaded the Kindle app to my laptop, bought the novella, and read it online. For me, it was an empty experience. I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as the print books by this author. The words just kind of lay there on the screen, and I found the glare annoying (I experience this constantly in my work, but it felt worse when I was reading for fun). I haven’t bought any more ebooks. I have been trying to read From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America at the Internet Archive, but it’s been slow going in the online format.

I think I’m going to be in big trouble if print publishing ever goes the way of the dodo… but will it? I wonder. As much as I love electronic library resources (and I do! I really do! I much prefer doing research online to in print!), I don’t love ebooks for pleasure reading, and I wonder just how much others actually read ebooks and enjoy them. And of course that led to my sending out a one-question survey. The survey question was this:

For your pleasure reading:

  • ___  Kindle (Nook, iPad, iPhone, other e-reader) OR
  • ___  print?

That was it. I sent the “survey” to about 60 colleagues at home and around the country. They included academic, public, school, and special librarians, archivists, administrators, and digital specialists. Some were seasoned librarians, some were newbies (or relative newbies), some were baby boomers, some were digital natives, Gen X, Gen Y, Millennials… you get the idea. I got a terrific response, and most people said they’d be very interested in hearing the results. So here they are:

  • Those who prefer an e-reader for pleasure reading: 8
  • Those who prefer print for pleasure reading: 31
  • Those who indulge in both: 19

As with others of my brief surveys, some of the comments that accompanied the survey responses provided extra context, so here are a few of those (completely anonymized, as always):

“I don’t really like pleasure reading from my Kindle. I prefer when I am reading at home to read a [print] book. The navigation on my Kindle is not good. I hate not being able to flip back to re-read an important passage. When I go back to read in a [print] book, I can remember exactly where the paragraph was on the page. I can’t do that with my Kindle. I also love cracking open a new book and enjoying its smell, the feel of high quality paper, and the art work of the dust jacket.”

“I do read print but I like to read in bed so I can read on my iPad with the Kindle app without having the lights on—and the other thing I like about reading on the iPad is that I can look at Google maps to see the locations and things referred to in my story.”

“Print, except when traveling, then Kindle.”

“I stick to print but only because I get migraines and the glare/reflection from ereaders (I actually do own one, but still prefer print) gets to me after long periods of reading.”

“For pleasure reading electronic is fine, for deeper reading I prefer print. Can’t really answer because I feel they serve different purposes.”

“Kindle. I read more books, more regularly [with it] than I ever have.”

“iPad, with a very occasional print book (so occasional that I find myself tapping the page of the print book to turn it…).”

“What the heck are those things you mention in the first line? Print—hands down.”

“Kindle on train. Print at home.”

“Both! The defining factor is if I want to share the book, if I’m reading on a beach, or traveling for more than a few weeks.”

“I use both. I like my iPhone when I travel (using Kindle) but a [print] book in bed unless my husband complains about the light when I read in bed and then I will switch to my phone.”

“Kindle for me! (This from a special collections librarian – it’s true, though).”

“Both. When traveling I always take my Kindle because of weight/space constraints and usually a print book (or two). Right now I’m reading print, but I also read electronically. I’m not that picky.”

“PRINT!!!!”

“It’s funny because five minutes ago I was talking to a colleague about how I tend to read magazines in print. The New Yorker, Atlantic, law library journals. Most other pleasure reading is online, including trashy romance novels!”

One respondent asked if my survey was related to the recent Washington Post article, “Why digital natives prefer reading in print. Yes, you read that right.” It wasn’t, but I certainly found the article interesting, considering the results of my wholly unscientific survey. The thing is, I do know who answered what, and I was struck by the fact that preferences definitely did not run along age lines. There were plenty of “young folks” who preferred print, just as there were plenty of “seasoned folks” who preferred electronic or used both. For some, form followed function/environment; for others, one format or the other was simply preferred. I do know what my preference is, but I also respect the differing preferences my colleagues reported. May we all be able to do our pleasure reading—in whatever format we prefer—for a very long time.

Read eReviews, where Cheryl LaGuardia and Bonnie Swoger look under the hood of the latest library databases and often offer free database trials

Cheryl LaGuardia About Cheryl LaGuardia

Cheryl LaGuardia always wanted to be a librarian, and has been one for more years than she's going to admit. She cracked open her first CPU to install a CD-ROM card in the mid-1980s, pioneered e-resource reviewing for Library Journal in the early '90s (picture calico bonnets and prairie schooners on the web...), won the Louis Shores / Oryx Press Award for Professional Reviewing, and has been working for truth, justice, and better electronic library resources ever since. Reach her at claguard@fas.harvard.edu, where she's a Research Librarian at Harvard University.

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Comments

  1. Tim Dodge says:

    Good column! I enjoy reading it in general, but particularly this time.
    I am definitely old school and prefer print by far for pleasure reading and in general. However, I do recognize that times have changed and that others either have no problem with Kindle/digital books or actually prefer to read books that way.
    I would agree with Ms. LaGuardia that pleasure reading should be available in whatever format works best for the reader. I am not opposed to the electronic world as such but I am opposed to things going electronic-ONLY.

    • Hi Tim,

      I have to admit I was surprised by the results of my tiny survey! Although I’ve been an early adopter of most things electronic, reading for pleasure in an ebook has always seemed to me to be an oxymoron, since I don’t find pleasure in it. The surprise was that so many other folks, including digital natives, feel the same way. But I think the idea of “whatever works best for the reader” is the most important take away from this for me, and I hope it means we’ll have that choice for a long time to come.

      Thanks very much for writing, with best wishes,
      Cheryl

  2. I personally would make a distinction between e-ink and backlit technologies. I don’t want to do pleasure reading on a computer. I do sometimes, my local library offers comics online. However, I don’t find any difference between e-ink and print text reading. E-ink doesn’t do colors, so if the illustrations are important, then only print will suffice. I’ll happily download books from Project Guttenberg, eBooks@Adelaide, my local library or elsewhere to my Kindle. That’s the Kindle e-reader, not the tablet. My To Read stack is kept neatly on the device, not cluttering up the house.

    • That’s an interesting distinction, David, and one I didn’t really factor into my “survey.” Having said that, my preference wouldn’t change, and I’m not sure how many others’ responses would have changed, since I don’t recall anyone bringing that point up. But if I had to read something for pleasure online, I’m pretty sure I would want to use a backlit resource. But only if I HAD to…. ; )
      Thanks for writing and for bringing this point up!
      Best wishes,
      Cheryl

    • I voted Kindle, and the e-ink/backlit difference *would* change my vote. If the poll had been print vs. backlit-specific e-reader, my preference would change to print!

  3. Here’s a vote in from a colleague who missed the survey the first time around; wanted to share it since it brings some new aspects to the discussion:

    “I agree with many of the comments- I often use my phone, laptop or iPad Mini when traveling or at other times but I actually hate buying books for it, hate not being able to flip back and forth, prefer the feeling of a print book including on airplanes where they’re a bit like a security blanket. Tablets are not like security blankets.”

    Am getting a slew of e-mails from readers about this survey, and may just have to do a follow-up post to cover them. So if you have anything you’d like to weigh in on about this topic, please do post a comment or send me an e-mail at: claguard@fas.harvard.edu. I anonymize it all! Thanks, Cheryl

  4. I weighed in, and linked to this article, here: https://enamoredreader.wordpress.com/2015/03/06/print-or-ereader-how-do-you-read/

    Print will always be cherished, but eReaders benefit those with disabilities and other limitations.

    • Excellent points, A.P., and well-taken!
      All the more reason for the continuing multiplicity of formats. I’m just hoping it never becomes a question of “only one or the other,” since so many would lose out in that case.
      Thanks so much for writing, and for the link.
      Best wishes,
      Cheryl

  5. For me there is an important distinction between kindle and backlit (and frankly I find the kindle superior to the kobo ereader experience). I’m a librarian and always had stacks of physical books everywhere and I love having them all in my kindle available to me all the time. I can keep several books going (and mags on my note 3) without ruining my back lugging a heavy purse. Can’t remember the last time I read a physical book. Despite some small limitations, for me the kindle is vastly superior. Amazing for travel yes but also for every day for those who read a lot.

    • Hi JoAnne,

      You make great points here, and I understand your preference for the Kindle… but I’m still a printie, at heart.
      Thanks for weighing in! with best wishes,
      Cheryl

  6. So much research now out there about reading, the difficulties most people face when trying to make meaning from text on screen and the fact that you need really good literacy skills with traditional media (print) before you can interrogate text on the screen. Add to this the complexities of visual interpretation and it is no wonder that most people across all age groups, print when they want to read for meaning. Found the same thing in my own research with the so-called digital natives. Computers are complementary, not compensatory. Kids who have difficulties reading (the mechanics and for meaning) won’t be able to use the computer effectively either. Adding audio ands visuals are also problematic as well, since we tend to ignore listening and viewing skills when teaching literacy – tend to concentrate on reading and writing. Bottom line – we need to teach them all forms of literacy, starting with good traditional literacy first. Technology in schools is a tool that can enhance learning, but it is not a solution. :) BC

    • Hi Barbara,

      Thanks for bringing these considerations into the discussion! It’s entirely possible that the distraction factors relating to ebooks may play a large part in my preference for print, and that never occurred to me before.

      Would love to hear more about your research with digital natives, too! Thanks for weighing in.
      Best wishes,
      Cheryl

  7. Sue Tunnicliff says:

    I don’t have a real preference between print and electronic, but when I have been reading both screen and print all day (community librarian), I love to close my eyes and lose myself in an audio book.

    • Gosh, Sue, as a long-distance commuter I should have remembered to put audio books in the mix! Whoops!
      And that is the way I first encountered books; as a child I was read to a lot and loved it.

      Thanks for bringing them up, and for weighing in!
      Best wishes,
      Cheryl

  8. I received another e-mailed comment on this post that I want to share (anonymizedly, with the sender’s permission), since it brings more interesting points to the Kindle or print debate:

    “There are several reasons I don’t own a Kindle.

    A simple pragmatic reason is that it would be one more thing to keep charged when traveling. Laptop and phone (and, yes I still have an iPod and find its interface for listening to music or podcast better than the iPhone)–that’s enough to carry around and keep charged.

    More significantly is that I don’t want to be a party to Jeff Bezos’s threat, perhaps unintentional, to the future of the public library. Imprisoning a book in the hands of a single device owner who can use it only on that device (I know–things have loosened up a little bit–but still) changes the social culture of the printed book–lending them among friends and family, donating them to my public library’s used books sale–all things that Jeff doesn’t permit. He is part of the 1% who is, in my opinion, indifferent towards all the rest of us and what our public libraries have contributed to literacy, public knowledge, community, etc.”

    An anonymous correspondent