Between the Lines of the Digital Debate

January 09, 2013

Digital vs Print


Jonathan Franzen takes some comfort from knowing he will not be alive in fifty years to find out if books have become obsolete. Speaking at last year’s Hay Festival in Cartagena, Colombia, the award-winning author of the The Corrections and Freedom, argued that the increasing popularity of digital reading lacked the permanency or gravity of printed books, and could eventually spell its disaster. “The Great Gatsby was last updated in 1924,” he maintained, “You don’t need it to be refreshed, do you?” The readers themselves however, seem not to fully share Franzen’s concerns.

Digital by the Numbers

Maintaining hard copy and digital formats, however, can co-exist. Advocates of e-books point to cost advantages, portability and a massive library of books users can access from pretty much anywhere. A survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project reveals that the population of e-book readers is steadily growing, and in the past year, their numbers increased from 16% of all Americans aged 16 and older, to 23%. The move toward e-book reading also coincides with an increase in ownership of electronic book reading devices. The Pew Research notes that the number of owners of either an e-book reading device or tablet computer, like the Barnes & Noble NOOK® HD and the larger 9-inch NOOK® HD+, grew to 33% from 18% the year before.


Pew Research eReading Device Ownership Table

Learning from the Screen

Not surprisingly, digital reading is proving especially popular on the college campus where the screen is often a more familiar environment than the page. In fact, over the last year, content availability, technological growth and new learning experiences have helped drive the expansion of digital textbooks on college campuses nationwide. NOOK Study™, Barnes & Noble’s free downloadable e-reading and study application for Mac and PC, was developed specifically for academic use and easily integrates with most popular Learning Management Systems (LMS), such as Blackboard Learn, Moodle, Sakai and Desire2Learn. Created with extensive input from students and faculty, NOOK Study enables students to purchase textbooks, organize their course material and link or annotate passages directly from the text.

Keeping the Written Word

Many industry observers argue that digital formats actually encourage reading. With screens that can be lit in the dark and text that can be re-sized for the visually impaired, e-books bring greater reading opportunities and more accessibility to more readers. With the opportunity for multimedia content, sound and razor-sharp screen quality, e-readers like NOOK® also provide better accessibility for younger readers and can help encourage an early love of books.

While the economic realities of modern-day publishing have reduced the amount of books being produced, digital reading may itself usher in a new renaissance of the written word, providing greater title choice and more specialized academic source materials – ultimately ensuring that reading will endure.