“We Don’t Read That Way”

About Aaron McCollough

English Literature Librarian, University of Michigan

Today’s post is a “reblog” post from Laura Braunstein, English Language and Literature Librarian at Dartmouth College. It was originally posted on the ACRLog.

I was chatting recently with a professor in my liaison department who was beginning research for a new book. Did she have everything she needed? Was there anything I should look into ordering? Yes, she said, the library was pretty well stocked with books and journals for the topic. However, many of the books she needed we only had as ebooks — for those, she would order print copies through interlibrary loan.

One of my colleagues had a similar experience. He was talking to several of his liaison faculty about a new ebook collection in the Humanities. The collection would be great, they told him, when they needed to look something up quickly, or search for a mention of a particular topic. But they would still want print books for serious study — ebooks weren’t the same, they told him, “we just don’t read that way.”

Many of these professors own Kindles or other ereaders, and love them — for reading the latest Ruth Rendell mystery on a six-hour flight to France to visit an archive. It’s one thing, they tell us, to read for pleasure on a screen — but it’s quite another to read for understanding, for critique, for engaging in the scholarly conversation. And this isn’t a generational matter — some of the faculty I know who seem most committed to print are younger than forty.

Does reading in the Humanities necessitate the long-form, linear, analog experience of the codex? Even when I tell these professors about the features available in some of the new ebook platforms — highlighting, annotation, sharing notes, etc — they still assert that they “just don’t read that way.” (And what applies to reading is even more crucial in writing — when it comes to tenure or promotion, they tell me, no monograph “born digital” would ever “count” in the way a print book would.)

Ebooks seem like sweet low-hanging fruit — they have enhanced searchability, accessibility at any time or place, and reduced storage and preservation costs. What’s not to love? Ebooks seem to make our students very happy. Often they don’t want to read a book cover to cover (although their professors might wish they would), and searching for relevant passages seems to satisfy their needs for many assignments. And journal literature seems exempt from the preference for print — I haven’t heard many complaints about deaccessioning back runs of print journals represented in JSTOR’s collections, for instance.

Is a user who routinely requests a print copy when the ebook is in the library’s holdings just multiplying the costs we thought we were saving? Should we deny these requests? Should we tell our Humanities faculty that even if they “just don’t read that way,” they should, because that’s the way the world of scholarly communication is moving in most other fields? Do we need to change their habits of reading, and habits of mind? Do we lead them to new formats or follow their preferences?

8 Responses to ““We Don’t Read That Way””

  1. Lindsay says:

    I’ve got similar issues with students and faculty in many subject areas in my library. Part of the reaction is “I don’t read that way” and part of it is discomfort with the technology. We’ve committed to purchasing more and more of our resources as ebooks and less in print, but as this issue keeps coming up I wonder more and more if we should stick with that model or find a better balance between print and electronic.

  2. Judith says:

    Interesting discussion and timely. One of my colleagues just ordered a replacement copy, which (because it had disappeared) was ordered as an ebook. The faculty member (young, in film studies) wants a print copy as well, again because of the way scholarly books are read and the discomfort with technology that Lindsay mentions. I also am a bit leery of the rush to ebooks, in humanities anyway, and I am not finding great numbers of students who like them either.

    • Alan says:

      What’s really driving the move to e-books is storage and preservation costs. Making e-books available when students “don’t want to read a book cover to cover (although their professors might wish they would),” merely undermines education. So serious scholars are caught between library administrators who more and more are acting as shills for the computer industry and students only interested in turning in something that looks like scholarship. Our needs are getting squeezed out and when you make your needs known, you often are insulted with slurs like “luddite,” “dinosaur,” “old fashioned,” etc.

  3. Faye says:

    I’ve been wondering if anyone has created a survey to send to faculty–something that would provide insight into how they’re using e-books (both in teaching and research), or whether they’re using e-books at all. I suspect many of us are feeling the pressure to purchase more e-books, and thanks to shrinking budgets ,can no longer afford to get both electronic and print. I don’t know if a survey is the answer, but some guidance on when it’s preferable to purchase e vs. print (based on evidence) might be helpful.

  4. aline soules says:

    At our institution, where growth is primarily in the online environment, e-books are essential. Our mandate is to provide the same information to our online faculty and students as to our hybrid and F2F faculty and students. As we can’t afford duplicates or, indeed,For those who don’t want to read them, they are going to have to get their own copies as our now-meager staff has no time to ILL something we already provide. This may sound harsh, but this is a case of “reality bites.”

    Another challenge is that our consortial borrowing is becoming more limited because we can’t “borrow” ebooks, only print books, and as most libraries are turning to e-format, I wonder if our consortium will be of much use in future for current materials.

    Sometimes, the problem lies with faculty demands of their students. Their citations “must” have page number–why? If the book has a “location number” or is free on the web with no page number, so be it. I have frantic students in my office about such issues and I wonder how this contributes to their intellectual growth, other than to educate them about how not to conduct affairs.

    I suspect that both e-books and user acceptance of them will eventually merge and that we will come to accept them more readily than many of us do now. I once heard a complaint from a visually-impaired students about e-books. Once I showed her that the Kindle lets you enlarge the text, she became a convert. This speaks to the need for librarians to educate–not in information literacy, but in device literacy. As a previous commenter noted, you can highlight and search and do all sorts of things. This can be overwhelming, so I am attempting to provide instruction on one “do-able” at a time. This can be absorbed.

    The goal is to help people adjust to these formats because they’re coming, like it or not, and many more books will be in e-format only, meaning you will be able to read it online or do without.

    Makes you think of Aldous Huxley, doesn’t it? Aline

  5. Pete says:

    “Do we lead them to new formats or follow their preferences?”

    I suppose it depends on what we mean by “lead.” I enjoy having conversations with humanities faculty about this sort of thing, and I’m quite plain with them about what benefit and necessity the library sees in e-books while also frank in acknowledging their limitations. This maybe conducive to a long-term shift, which might make other librarians not working with humanists impatient. But I’ll take a slow shift over a quick rift any day.

    I’m not looking forward to the day that I have to tell a humanities faculty that we can only buy the book they need in a format that they don’t want to read it in. I’m reluctant to think that I know more than centuries–millenia–of reading practice–even if its warrants are a bit opaque. What would my own reasons and warrants be, after all? Nothing more than the harsh realities of money and space. Should that day come, it won’t be because humanists should or shouldn’t read a certain way, but because the library is insufficiently resourced to support them in making such a choice for themselves.

    That’s the larger question. As if it isn’t always. So either by implication or full articulation, that’s part of the conversations I’m having now: e-books are a workaround to an intractable funding/space issue. Unfortunately they also involve some real trade-offs, and I would never pretend otherwise.

  6. Kevin Mulcahy says:

    I’m very happy to see this conversation. Interest in e-books is, thus far, primarily among the sciences, business, and, to some extent, the social sciences, at my university. I’ve heard no clamor from the English Department as yet, though it is on my agenda for my next meeting with the chair of the department. Since e-books seem to be more expensive, I’m content for now at least to be on the trailing edge of this development. I suspect I’ll get pressure from my library administrators before I hear demand from English, but I’m very curious to see how it plays out, locally and globally.

  7. Although “journal literature seems exempt from the preference for print” that wasn’t always so. And there are still a few faculty members (and students and librarians) that prefer to read journal articles on paper. But those preferences are shifting just as I trust book reading preferences will. Ebooks are still a bit unwieldy: there are too many formats, interfaces, limitations, exceptions, etc. Collection development librarians try to minimize these but we can only do so much. I have not seen a good study of actual preference trends about this. I would like to. My intuition says that there are a growing number of faculty who have no problem with ebooks as well as those who prefer e.

Leave a Reply