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Electronic Readers – for Novels, Textbooks, or Novel Textbooks?

Back before the flood when Marshall McLuhan was muttering about the Medium being the Message, those of us in college weren’t particularly worried about technology impacting our reading material.  We bought the text books that we could afford, swapped beat up older versions of texts at the semester break, and actually used the library on campus for materials that were useful but just too expensive or rare to acquire in any other way.

Electronic readers – Kindles, Nooks, Sony’s e-reader, the iPad – are becoming widely used by the reading public and it is a logical to assume that more and more text books will soon be published in a downloadable electronic format.  But McLuhan’s ideas about the medium influencing how the human brain receives information are starting to get resurrected!

It turns out that some types of reading are best done with paper pages being turned, and dog-eared, and annotated, and flipped back and forth to find some nugget of information.  Manufacturers of both Kindles and iPads have made these devices available at no charge on some college campuses for the past two years to be used as “textbooks” with text and research books downloaded to them.  At the end of the semester students are free to purchase their devices at a significantly reduced rate, and contrary to initial assumptions they are NOT universally opting to own the devices after the semester ends.

Reading for the love of reading, like reading a novel or a non-fiction book, is easily accomplished with the electronic readers – I have read a number of studies that indicate that people with these devices are actually reading more than before they owned them.  That is certainly true in my case!  But when one needs to read to LEARN something – exposed to new concepts, wanting to turn back to something already explained or to see a diagram that preceded the text – readers prefer paper pages.  Even though digital tools exist, making marginal notes on electronic readers isn’t all that intuitive; recalling passages of exposition is easier done with a paper bookmark than electronic one.

What about our company’s core business — documentation surrounding constrution?  Information exchange during the design phase of a project is already being done by exchanging plans over the Internet — downloads, uploads, project portals, collaboration sites.  But will construction foremen want a roll of blueprints on the job site, or an iPad?  There are already “apps for that” but not widely in use — most installed applications are for reporting conditions.  The jury is still out about paper prints for tradesmen in construction vs digital pads or screens with framing plans on them.  Digital paper will probably be popular for news reading tasks (the ePaper Change Orders, Field Notes, etc.) because that information is transitory but what about reference materials like Project Specifications? What “works” on a digital surface better than a fragile – albeit human friendly – piece of paper?  It will be interesting to see how this shakes out over the next few years.

Cathie Cushing Duff

One of the third generation membership owners at Cushing, Cathie has been active in the organization since 1975. A graduate of the University of Toronto (St. Michael’s College) she attended the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and has been a guest lecturer at the University of Illinois School of Business. A Past President of the North Central Reprographic Association and International Reprographic Association, she has served on the ReproMAX Association and Chicago Family Business Council Boards. When not exploring print and digital communications, her passions are family, knitting and crocheting. Visit Cathie’s Google + profile.

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