Is Paperless the Future?

On Wednesday of this week, Steve Jobs presented the iPad, Apple’s e-reader. Since then, the web has been buzzing the possibilities presented by the iPad and similar devices, such as Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. Proponents of digital readers argue that electronic books and readers make a viable replacement for their ink and paper counterparts, and some articles are suggesting that the iPad and other e-readers may present an attractive alternative to the heavy and expensive text books that are a staple at high schools and on college campuses.

Although the e-reader hasn’t replaced traditional books in most schools, some schools are embracing this new technology. This school year, Cushing Academy transitioned to a paperless library. Rather than the familiar shelves with books, the library features laptop-friendly carrels, flat-screen televisions, and a coffee shop where the reference desk used to be. Cushing’s headmaster, James Tracey, is quoted as saying that “When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books… This isn’t ‘Fahrenheit 451’. We’re not discouraging students from reading. We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology.”

The changes at Cushing not only reflect the advances in technology, such as the increasing availability of digital books and e-readers, but they also show a strong catering to student preferences. With a plethora of content available online, it is quite possible that students do most of their reading on the internet or through digital readers. However, Cushing’s decision and the growth of the e-reader bring up several questions: Can digital text take the place of actual books? Furthermore, does reading digitally have the same effect as reading and interacting with a physical book?

One of the main points that many people make when defending the Kindle or other electronic reader is convenience. Besides giving people the ability to carry hundreds of books around on a portable device, having digital books allows for immediate gratification. If you want a book at 2:00 am, you can power up the computer (or fire up the Kindle or iPad) and have a book digitally delivered to you in a matter of seconds. Applications for the iPhone from purveyors like Amazon and Barnes & Noble can make reading electronically even more convenient. Furthermore, you don’t have to figure how to store or move hundreds of books around. Digital books are as easy to move as unplugging a computer.

However, going digital comes with a price. Cushing spent nearly $500,000 on renovating the library, with $10,000 going to buy 18 electronic readers (and ebooks) for students to use. The Nook and the latest generation of the Kindle go for $259, while the iPad is expected to retail for between $499 and $699 (depending upon the amount of memory the device has). There are numerous public domain books available for free online that can be downloaded for the devices, but newer books much be purchased. Although most e-books are cheaper than the average hardcover, the price of the device is so high that the savings might be difficult to see.

Another potential pitfall with digital reading (at least for me) is that reading on an electronic device can bring out the procrastinator in even the most focused person. When I’m trying to read an article on my computer or iPhone, I will sometimes get distracted and soon I find myself going online to check my email or update my Facebook page.

Perhaps the biggest drawback of going completely digital is that it prevents people from having a chance to really interact with books during reading. Although I do a lot of reading online, if there is anything that I feel is important or worth remembering or analyzing, I will print out a physical copy. Besides being able to read it anywhere with decent light, this also helps me to make notes in the margins, highlight key passages, mark important sections with Post-Its, and otherwise interact with the text in ways that I can’t when I’m reading on my computer or my iPhone. In addition to this interaction with the book, the shelving system of physical libraries, which organize books according to topic, make it easy to stumble upon books that I might not necessarily have found with a simple internet search.

What is your take on e-readers and e-books? Is this the way that things should (or perhaps will) be in the future?

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