Academic Library Book Digitization and Contemplative Reading

Introduction

 

Since the beginning of this century, academic libraries have been at the forefront of book digitization and access. During this same period, many individuals have made the transition from reading printed materials to reading on screens. This change in reading habits has led to profound shifts in how libraries conceive their mission, how they structure their spaces, how they organize their resources, and where they allocate funds in their budgets. These changes have been reflected in the Library and Information Science (LIS) literature, which now includes a rich corpus of research on the impact of digitization on librarians and library services. This article seeks to add to these discussions by exploring how e-resources impact reading habits, as users increasingly approach texts with a mindset of efficiency rather than contemplation. After exploring this research, I will put forward a proposal for how academic librarians can leverage the unique qualities of the physical book to encourage contemplative reading.

Academic Libraries and E-Books

At the dawn of the last century, almost everyone’s access to reading occurred via the printed word, through books, magazines, or periodicals. Now, as we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century, the printed word can no longer claim hegemony, as it competes with a variety of digital media, including e-books, e-journals, and websites.

Academic libraries and librarians have played a key role in the process of book digitization. One of the most significant contributions to this shift played by academic libraries was their involvement with the Google Books project. In 2002 Google announced that it had started a “books” project.[1] Later the company clarified that they intended to create “a future world in which vast collections of books are digitized, people would use a ‘web crawler’ to index the books’ content and analyze the connections between them, determining any given book’s relevance and usefulness by tracking the number and quality of citations from other books.”[2] In December 2004, a number of research libraries opened their collections to Google scanners, including libraries at the University of Harvard, Michigan, Stanford, Oxford, and the New York Public Library.[3]

This collaboration between Google and libraries, known as the “Library Project,” occurred at a time when the mission of libraries was already expanding to incorporate increasing digitization, especially in the burgeoning e-book and e-journal industry. Since then, the physical book has receded to being only a part of what university libraries have to offer. By 2014, the average North American library was spending almost three quarters of their budgets on digital resources.[4]

The shift toward online resources can been seen in the layout and design of libraries, which now devote more space—and often whole rooms—to computers. Increasing digitization has led some scholars to speculate that the library itself may one day recede into anachronism.[5]

Is There a Difference? Comparing print and Electronic

The widening reach of e-materials has resulted in librarians joining with educators and cognitive psychologists to take an interest in the impact e-reading has on comprehension and engagement. The LIS literature now contains a growing corpus of research exploring the differences between reading digital materials vs. reading physical materials. Early research seemed to suggest that students reported better reading experiences when reading printed materials,[6] in addition to having superior scores when measured by speed, accuracy and comprehension.[7] Additional studies suggested that learning via a digital medium can impair metacognitive monitoring and regulation.[8] While this research seems compelling, the question is far from settled. In 2013, Ferris Jabr summarized the results of studies and meta-studies on the difference between print and screens, identifying a trend in students towards greater user ease and positive experience with digital media.[9] Since then, studies continue to be ambiguous, with some research reporting no significant difference in student recall after reading electronic text vs. printed text.[10]

It is possible that some of the ambiguity in the research has resulted from methodological problems in the design of research studies. In a 2013 article for Computers & Education, Daniel and Woody pointed out that many of the instruments used for measuring cognitive processing and retention across the two media employ the non-naturalistic setting of a lab. The lab environment may smooth away variables that may be present when reading on the screen in one’s home. For example, when studying in the home instead of a lab, the reading of electronic resources seems to be correlated with greater computer-based multitasking activities, but this correlation is likely to decrease in a formal testing environment.[11] Support for such a theory can be found in research showing that a connected computer acts as an ecosystem of distraction technologies; consequently, the work of keeping oneself focused on the text can put a drain on the frontal cortex, leaving less neuro resources for contemplation, reflection, questioning, analysis, pondering, and schema formation.[12]

It is beyond the scope of this article to settle these questions, or even to delve into the research in any detail. Instead, I will use the remainder of this article to explore one aspect of how reading habits are being impacted by digitization and then to consider how university librarians can respond to these changes by encouraging a return to contemplative modes of reading.

A New Kind of Reading

As the Google Books project got mired in lawsuits and high-profile controversies over copyright, it became easy to overlook how the Books project was helping to introduce students to a new type of reading. By making books searchable, students had the ability to harvest information and quotes out of the books without actually reading them. “For Google,” wrote Nicholas Carr, “the real value of a book is not as a self-contained literary work but as another pile of data to be mined.”[13] He went on to warn that online books lend themselves to a different type of reading:

To make a book discoverable and searchable online is also to dismember it. With writing on the screen, we’re still able to decode text quickly—we read, if anything, faster than ever—but we’re no longer guided toward a deep, personally constructed understanding of the text’s connotations. Instead, we’re hurried off toward another bit of related information, and then another, and another. The strip-mining of ‘relevant content’ replaces the slow excavation of meaning.[14]

Qualitative evidence from the self-reports of readers support Carr’s concerns. People have touted Google Books as enabling us to “explore a book in 10 seconds.”[15] One student who received a 2008 Rhodes Scholarship and was president of the student body at Florida State University, said “I don’t read books. I go to Google, and I can absorb relevant information quickly.” He continued by observing that “Sitting down and going through a book from cover to cover doesn’t make sense. It’s not a good use of my time, as I can get all the information I need faster through the Web.[16] These anecdotes support the findings of Ziming Liu from San Jose State University, who “conducted a series of studies which indicate that the ‘new norm’ in reading is skimming, with word-spotting and browsing through the text.”[17]

Ebooks in pdf format seem to also lend themselves to this new type of reading – a grab and go approach in which the reader strives for maximum efficiency. Instead of slowly digesting the book, students will frequently use search functions to quickly identify the useful parts,[18] thus reinforcing the productivity mindset mentality that is already a strong cultural value for Americans.[19] Through digital tools students can approach a book like a cost-benefit game of maximizing outputs and minimizing inputs. In a 2018 article for The American Conservative, Gracy Olmstead discussed the task-completion mentality that is reinforced by digital books, as readers come to value efficiency over contemplation:

Our digital reading tools encourage these habits: e-readers incite our progress through a text by showing us how many pages we have completed, and how many we have left. This mechanism makes it extremely difficult to lose oneself in a text, and often turns reading into a race. The e-reader suggests that we are reading not to savor books, but to conquer them. Reading morphs from relationship into conquest.[20]

Other social, economic, and educational factors besides digitization may contribute to the type of reading Olmstead laments, but digitally-mediated content is certainly a major causative factor.

Since librarians played a key role in bringing e-resources into mainstream, it behooves them to think critically about the new state of affairs. Specifically, how should librarians respond to these widespread shifts in reading styles that have emerged in the wake of digitization, especially the tendency to prioritize efficiency over contemplation when reading?

Contemplative Reading in a Digital Culture

In a recent book published by Princeton University Press, Zena Hitz discussed the joy that arises from reading with an attitude of contemplation rather than efficiency.[21] Drawing on Aristotle’s philosophy, Hitz showed that contemplative reading—associated with losing oneself in a text independent of the text’s utility value—is an intrinsic good, and forms a constituent aspect of human flourishing.[22] Her book is the latest in a string of texts on the value of reading slowly, as a form of leisure.[23]

While it is a skill to be able to approach a text with a task-completion mentality, it is also a skill to be able to approach texts in the contemplative manner that Hitz and others have described. Yet as suggested in the last section, digitally-mediated reading tends to mitigate against contemplative reading by encouraging cursory reading/skimming and fostering a mindset of efficiency. Is it possible, even in widespread digital culture, to create habits and environments that foster this type of reading? And what role, if any, might academic librarians play in fostering more intellectually rewarding reading.

I hypothesize that it is indeed possible to encourage this type of contemplative reading, and I propose six ways that academic librarians can draw students to the pleasures of slow reading. Empirical research would have to be undertaken on the efficacy of my proposals before implementing them on a large scale.

First, academic librarians can foster contemplative reading by designing spaces that encourage inward calm and “leisure,” properly qualified.[24] What I propose is similar to what we can observe in the mindfulness movement, with hospitals and corporate office complexes designing spaces to encourage inward calm and contemplation. Just as libraries have areas that explicitly encourage digitization (for examples, rooms with computers and recharging terminals), so they also might profitably explore including digital-free zones designed to foster contemplative reading and quiet text-oriented reflection. Research should be undertaken to find which elements are most effective for creating a contemplative atmosphere, but a good place to start might be plants, fountains, and art.

Second, given that the physical book and physical space are both positively associated with contemplative reading, academic librarians can use scholarships and conferences to join the resurgence of interest in the physical book and its relationship to the space of the library. Dr. Amanda Clark, who is director of the library at Whitworth University in Spokane Washington, has begun making important contributions to this scholarship by exploring how the physical book serves an invaluable function in underscoring the importance of the library as place. In an article published in The Christian Librarian, she noted that

“Despite the increasingly digital nature of information retrieval, both users and computers continue to occupy physical space, and the library – as place – offers an essential location for inspiration. In an age when one might assume that the digital negates the physical, a finite place can root the individual within space regarding both composition and information retrieval. In this seeking for the essentially human element of the physical book within space, we may also discover a need for the library as place.”[25]

Clark continued by observing that the physical book offers users a connection to permanence that is lacking in digital texts.

While defying time, the physical book waits to be handled and rediscovered over passing ages, which necessitates a place to rest in anticipation of this future use. The library patron, or inhabitor of space, is summoned into the ever-present, ever-fleeting immediate moment within place, that is, the library. There is no digital equivalent to this mindful presentism. Reality, as considered by St. Augustine (397/398), is that which is present in the physical moment (see Book XI) in space and time. The physical book is arguably more “real” than its digital analog, which, since digital exists outside of place, space, and time, by its very nature vanishes without a trace until it is transformed into a physical manifestation.[26]

Third, academic librarians involved in information literacy and freshmen engagement, can teach about the side-effects of digitized text, while highlighting the role that physical books can play in contemplative reading.

Fourth, academic librarians can work with professors to incorporate activities that stretch the students towards contemplation and away from the efficiency mindset that may be correlated with digitally-mediated reading. Freshmen engagement librarians can assign students certain non-graded activities in contemplative reading spaces, and then ask the students to journal afterwards about their experience.

David I. Smith, author of Digital Life Together, tells of one teacher who tried such an exercise within a Christian school. The class had been studying about Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. They had been discussing how throughout the scriptures God speaks to people in the wilderness, yet today we have fortified ourselves against wilderness through continual noise, technology, and distractions. At one point in the lesson, the teacher sent the students out of the classroom to find somewhere quiet to study the Sermon on the Mount. The students were expected to take notes using pencil and paper, and not to bring any technology with them.

“We decided to attempt to create a little wilderness space in our busy day by seeking as much solitude and silence in the school as possible to allow the Word of God to come to us,” the teacher said. Smith describes what happened next:

After a reasonable time, the teacher calls the students back into the classroom and tells them, ‘Raise your hand if you didn’t get to chapter 7.’ He then asks them to move into groups based on which chapters they finished reading. It becomes visible that almost 60% of the students did not get to the end of chapter 7. At this point, the teacher pauses and asks, ‘Wait, you didn’t get to 7?’ and then looks at them in silence for a full ten seconds. The students all nod. (A ten-second silence is an eternity after a teacher has asked a question in a North American classroom; for most teachers a pause of two or three seconds requires training.) It is not too hard to surmise what students may be expecting him to say next. They have failed to complete the assignment.

Finally, the teacher speaks again. “Okay, I’m proud of you because you are engaging with these chapters.” In saying this, he frames the learning sequence in terms of the concerns he had voiced earlier, concerns that valued slowness, wilderness, listening. …he wanted to affirm that ‘learning to slow down and engage the text is one of the skills I want you to be developing.’[27]

This story illustrates how librarians and professors can use strategic activities to instill in students the values of contemplation, slow-reading, and quiet. They can begin pushing back against the values of our technocentric culture through emphasizing that more is not always better, and that sometimes the most rewarding reading occurs when we have turned off our technology.

Conclusion

University libraries have been at the forefront of book digitization. However, as digitally-mediated reading has come to occupy an ever-more central role in the library and university, there have been unintended consequences in how students read. While the research is far from conclusive, an emerging trend in the literature suggests that reading on the screen may be underscoring values of efficiency and pragmatism. This can be contrasted with the type of contemplative reading that has been highlighted in recent scholarship. This paper has suggested various ways that academic librarians can use physical books and spaces to push-back against the culture of efficiency, helping students to rediscover the joys of contemplative reading through engagement with physical books.

NOTES

[1] “Google Books History,” Web Archive, February 6, 2016, https://web.archive.org/web/20160206043510/http://books.google.com/googlebooks/about/history.html.

[2] “Google Books History.”

[3] Richard Rubin, Foundations of Library and Information Science (Chicago, IL: Neal-Schuman, An imprint of the American Library Association, 2016), 190.

[4] Maria Savova and Jason S. Price, “Redesigning the Academic Library Materials Budget for the Digital Age: Applying the Power of Faceted Classification to Acquisitions Fund Management,” Library Resources & Technical Services 63, no. 2 (April 2019): 131–42, https://doi.org/10.5860/lrts.63n2.131.

[5] “Even the library itself may disappear, as we move from the holding and lending library, which stores knowledge physically recorded on paper, to the consulting library, which provides access to electronic information on the network; then from an object-oriented culture, which produces multiple copies of physical entities like books and CD-ROMs for each user, to a culture that appreciates the relationship between time and information, and provides services charged per period of use; and finally from the library as a building to the library as a gate node in the virtual space of the digital encyclopedia.” Luciano Floridi, “The Internet: Which Future for Organized Knowledge, Frankenstein or Pygmalion?,” Revista de História Das Ideias 18 (January 1, 1996): 264, https://doi.org/10.14195/2183-8925_18_15.

See Also

[6] Linda Bennett and Monica Landoni, “E‐books in Academic Libraries,” The Electronic Library 23, no. 1 (February 1, 2005): 9–16; Gordon Coleman, “E-Books and Academics: An Ongoing Experiment,” Feliciter 50, no. 4 (August 2004): 124–25; Jan Noyes and Kate Garland, “Explaining Students’ Attitudes toward Books and Computers,” Computers in Human Behavior 22, no. 3 (May 1, 2006): 351–63; Jan Noyes and Kate Garland, “Students’ Attitudes toward Books and Computers,” Computers in Human Behavior 21, no. 2 (March 1, 2005): 233–41, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2004.02.016.

[7] Jan M. Noyes and Kate J. Garland, “Computer- vs. Paper-Based Tasks: Are They Equivalent?,” Ergonomics 51, no. 9 (September 2008): 1352–75, https://doi.org/10.1080/00140130802170387.

[8] Rakefet Ackerman and Morris Goldsmith, “Metacognitive Regulation of Text Learning: On Screen versus on Paper,” Journal of Experimental Psychology. Applied 17, no. 1 (March 2011): 18–32.

[9] “Before 1992 most studies concluded that people read slower, less accurately and less comprehensively on screens than on paper. Studies published since the early 1990s, however, have produced more inconsistent results: a slight majority has confirmed earlier conclusions, but almost as many have found few significant differences in reading speed or comprehension between paper and screens. And recent surveys suggest that although most people still prefer paper—especially when reading intensively—attitudes are changing as tablets and e-reading technology improve and reading digital books for facts and fun becomes more common.” Ferris Jabr, “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens,” Scientific American, accessed October 21, 2020, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/reading-paper-screens/.

[10] Elisabeth Norman and Bjarte Furnes, “The Relationship between Metacognitive Experiences and Learning: Is There a Difference between Digital and Non-Digital Study Media?,” Computers in Human Behavior 54 (January 1, 2016): 301–9.

[11] David B. Daniel and William Douglas Woody, “E-Textbooks at What Cost? Performance and Use of Electronic v. Print Texts,” Computers & Education 62 (March 1, 2013): 18–23.

[12] Robin Phillips, “The Shallows, Schema-Formation, and Memory,” Robin Mark Phillps (blog), April 16, 2020, https://robinmarkphillips.com/shallows-schema-formation-memory/; T.J. Raphael, “Your Paper Brain and Your Kindle Brain Aren’t the Same Thing,” The World from PRX, September 18, 2014, https://www.pri.org/stories/2014-09-18/your-paper-brain-and-your-kindle-brain-arent-same-thing.

[13] Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Updated edition (W. W. Norton & Company, 2020), 165.

[14] Carr, 166.

[15] Diego Puppin, “Explore a Book in 10 Seconds,” Google Books Search (blog), accessed November 4, 2020, http://booksearch.blogspot.com/2009/06/explore-book-in-10-seconds.html.

[16] Cited in Carr, The Shallows, 8–9.

[17] Maryanne Wolf, “Skim Reading Is the New Normal. The Effect on Society Is Profound | Maryanne Wolf,” The Guardian, August 25, 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/25/skim-reading-new-normal-maryanne-wolf.

[18] David I. Smith et al., Digital Life Together: The Challenge of Technology for Christian Schools (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2020).

[19] Smith et al., 131.

[20] Gracy Olmstead, “How Did You Read This Summer? | The American Conservative,” The American Conservative, September 3, 2018, https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/how-did-you-read-this-summer/.

[21] Zena Hitz, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020).

[22] Robin Phillips, “Lost & Profound,” Salvo Magazine (blog), November 20, 2000, https://salvomag.com/post/lost-profound.

[23] OP A. G. Sertillanges and SJ James V. Schall, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods, trans. Mary Ryan, Reprint edition (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1992); Josef Pieper and James V. Schall, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, First edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009); Robin Phillips, “Josef Pieper and the Lost Art of Leisure,” Robin Mark Phillps (blog), April 16, 2020, https://robinmarkphillips.com/josef-pieper-lost-art-leisure/; C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge University Press, 1992).

[24] I am using the term leisure in the sense that it was employed by the German Catholic philosopher, Josef Pieper (1904–1997). Phillips, “Josef Pieper and the Lost Art of Leisure.”

[25] Amanda Clark, “Library As Place: Being Human in a Digital World,” The Christian Librarian 57, no. 1 (2014): 73.

[26] Clark, 73.

[27] Smith et al., Digital Life Together, 233.

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