As a librarian, especially a library student, I'm frequently asked my opinion on eBooks. The following is a brief essay I had to compose as my latest MLIS assignment. It's written in the style of an op-ed. I was asked to read two books on any subject, so long as one was a printed book and one was an eBook. I chose to read two books on Greek Paleography (Paleography is "the study of ancient writing systems and the deciphering and dating of historical manuscripts", according to the New Oxford American Dictionary). It's my new favorite amateur interest, and includes the study of ancient Biblical and Patristic texts (which overlaps with the related field of papyrology). More on that in future blog entries. For now, here's my opinion regarding print vs. digital media:
Print or Digital: The Irony and Frustrations of Studying Ancient Codices in Non-Contemporary Formats
I’ve always been skeptical about eBooks. I’d tell myself I was a Luddite, but that wasn’t true. My attitude was a mix of antiquarianism and “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” practicality. Now it’s become clear to me, through investigation of the history of books, that my loyalties don’t have to be exclusively print or digital. The question could have been asked in the 3rd century, “Scroll or codex?” or in the early 16th century, “Print or manuscript?” Of course, history has shown that certain formats are adopted for their strengths, and others abandoned for their weaknesses, but gradually.
In order to investigate this issue for myself, I read two books. The first was a 1955 print version of B.A. van Groningen’s “Short Manual of Greek Paleography” (I told you I was an antiquarian). The second was a PDF eBook of “An Introduction to Greek and Latin Paleography”, written in 1912 by Sir Edward Maunde Thompson. I obtained the PDF through the HathiTrust, the book having been scanned by Google. It is worth noting that, lacking an eReader platform, I utilized Apple’s built-in Preview (version 5.5.3), the Mendeley citation program (version 1.10.1), and my HTC One smartphone.
Both books share essentially the same content. The only difference is that the print book was around 70 pages; the eBook was closer to 600. The file size of the eBook caused me some problems. Frequently, I would have to wait a few seconds for pages to load. This caused me some problems when scrolling. How am I supposed to know what page I’m on if all of the pages display blank white while I scroll? At worst, my laptop would freeze. This was due to a much needed memory upgrade, but these aren’t problems I have to worry about with a printed book. Another reading problem I encountered with the eBook were visual problems. I have poor vision: I have been wearing glasses since third grade. Sometimes, my eyes get dry or irritated while using a computer screen. Maybe this is a problem for some people with print, but at this point, I’m an expert at avoiding print eyestrain.
Print held a distinct advantage in the case of studying these particular books. Both books contained high-quality facsimile plates of paleographic materials. There were frequent references to these plates. In the case of the print book, I could keep one finger at the cited plate, and another at my reading place. This way, I could flip back and forth easily. The same could not be said for the eBook. Switching between the text and the referenced plate was unfeasible and at times frustrating. I had to either remember what I was supposed to observe in the plate, or just move on. The aforementioned page-loading problems did not help this problem.
One advantage the eBook had over print was portability. I attended my old high school’s football game on Friday night. At half time, I pulled out my smartphone, pulled up the text, and was suddenly transported from a chilly Western Pennsylvania high school stadium to a private study, examining facsimiles of the Codex Vaticanus. I have to admit, that was pretty cool. When the game started back up, I put my phone back in my pocket, simple as that. Print in that situation would have not been pleasant. I have a habit of bringing books to high school football games. Earlier this year, I brought some books to read to the same stadium. A storm was rolling in for some time early the next morning. The air became so saturated with water vapor that it condensed on the surface of my trade paperback, causing the front cover to curl. At over 600 pages and 100 years old, bringing a print version of the eBook to such an environment would have been unwieldy and irresponsible. The same applies for the print version of “Short Manual”. Being a fairly delicate library book, I would have been taking a huge risk in bringing it to the game.
Sharing the eBook between my devices was remarkably easy. Once I downloaded the PDF from HathiTrust, I could choose whichever program I wanted to read it. Transferring the file to my smartphone was simple as well. When I reflect on the fact that I could wirelessly transfer high-quality reproductions of ancient codices to my smartphone using Bluetooth, I am amazed.
One strength of print media, as yet unmatched in the digital formats, is the ease and flexibility of annotating the text. I can easily write notes, underline, bookmark, and dog-ear (except not, of course, with a library book). I had major difficulties with annotating the PDF eBook. Even though Preview and Mendeley offer tools to annotate, they were not very useful. Perhaps things would have worked in a book published as an eBook. However, the PDFs of the scanned book became a single digital image on each page. That is, no lines of the text could be individually selected or highlighted; it was all or nothing. Mendeley offers a nice feature of automatically generating citations of uploaded PDFs. Mendeley on my computer is pretty buggy, and has a low success rate of accurately extracting citation data from the files. This time, Mendeley extracted no data accurately. Ah, the wonders of modern technology.
Despite the technical problems, when the eBook worked, it was useful. eBooks certainly win for portability. I still prefer print, but, when the eBook worked well, I couldn’t help but feel that print’s days were numbered. I don’t think it will happen soon, or even in my lifetime. For now, I think people will use the respective media according to their preferences and needs. For me, I’ve learned to accept eBooks, but my tastes and needs favor printed books. As technology improves, I have no doubt that some day digital media will be able to successfully replicate the advantages of print.
Do you have an opinion of print versus digital media? Has either one been particularly useful or detrimental to your study of Scripture or other pious readings? Do you have any predictions about the place of digital media in the future of the Orthodox Church? I would like to write a few brief articles on here detailing the links between the rise of Christianity and the replacement of the scroll by the codex, as well as the writing practices of the ancient Church, and the transitions between scroll/codex and manuscript/print. Print history is more complicated and interesting than you might think!