Digitization: A Loss or Gain in Literacy

As technology continues to progress in our society, so does our ability to process information. The texts that are available in print slowly make its way into e-books and/or other digital formats. Our sense of touch becomes a swipe on a screen. The difficulty I often have with digitization is that it may presumably deter the reader’s desire to traditionally pick up a book and physically feel the effects of flipping the pages.

In my undergraduate seminar course, our theme was books about books; essentially one of the primary foundations of a book is the format and layout. Page breaks may not always make it when transcribed, and the meaning of those page breaks are lost amongst other elements in say, the shift in scenes, etc. However, one could also argue that the content or writing style should be a preset or clue to the shift, if the reader was attentive.

Another aspect that may be lost depending on the age of the text is the design and history of the pages. This is essential when there are only few editions of the work in existence. For example, one of our assigned texts in the seminar course was People of the Book; in it, Geraldine Brooks introduces the Haggadah, a Jewish text, and its travels through different owners. Throughout the restoration process, Hanna finds different objects that make its way into the book, such as an a type of butterfly’s body that is unique to a certain place. By going through this process, she is able to understand the impact of the Haggadah to those who admire it as well as those who feel threaten by its existence. However, Hanna is just one person gaining a glimpse of the text, and if not for digitization, texts like the Haggadah would not be accessible to us online.

I suppose the benefit, then, of digitization is that it allows more people to have access to reading limited texts and gaining a grasp of the history behind the works. For modern works, I feel that readers, particularly college students, may feel dissuaded to purchase printed copies as they are more expensive than digital editions. In fact, the existence of Project Gutenberg makes it easier to avoid purchasing a text altogether, if it is available. However, it is important to keep in mind that these translated copies may not have page numbers so it is not as easy to remember where you are in the story.

The “reading brain” is questionable in its retention of information. Is our brain interacting with the text the way it did before? Are we remembering where we left off in the pages, or are we relying on the digital text to do the job? (456)

5 thoughts on “Digitization: A Loss or Gain in Literacy

  1. Great response! I like the arguments presented here but want to comment on the “Reading Brain” article you attached. At one point they say that the lack of tactile experiences in conjunction with the length of the novel can prevent people from navigating long texts, which I think is wrong as the ctrl-f function (I may cheating here but still) allows me to quickly find exact quotes and sections much more efficiently than in a paper copy with post its. Second, the article says the digitization of novels is inhibiting reading comprehension and how we remember text. That is something of concern, and something that I put real weight in– I agree that I remember text far longer if read in a book versus an e-reader or computer.

    I think it does come down to the evolving of our brains into new ways of thinking and synthesizing information.

  2. Thank you for the enlightening entry, I certainty appreciate the sources and references that you gave to highlight your argument further; I suppose that’s an example of digital text and Internet being a credible source. In a way, it might make for a good analogy to say that digital text is the “Haggadah” that travels to different users and thus has different effects and outcomes during the process. Furthermore, there is a part of the reference from the “reading brain” online-article that proposed an interesting concept that I wanted to explore myself in discussion: “when we read, we construct a mental representation of the text in which meaning is anchored to structure. The exact nature of such representations remains unclear, but they are likely similar to the mental maps we create of terrain—such as mountains and trails—and of man-made physical spaces, such as apartments and offices.” I think mental mapping is an important part of reading that is currently used more in printed text than in digital text, and if schools or universities wish to incorporate online reading in the future, it might help to research mental mapping to assist in that transition. If so, how can this be done?

  3. Thanks for the link to the fascinating article, “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens.” I really enjoyed both your post, and the linked article. After pondering this subject for the better part of a week, I wish that I could say that I fell squarely in one camp versus the other (i.e. team print books -vs- team digital text). Unfortunately, I keep vascillating between the two and see merits in both. For instance, having been sick in bed for the past few days, I find reading on my Kindle easier than using a print book. I can adjust the display, the background color, and the size of the text. However, I am still not convinced that I retain as much information when reading a non-print book, and find myself having to re-read passages or skim through pages of text to reorient myself. I think that the article in “Scientific American” explains it best: [t]urning the pages of a paper book is like leaving one footprint after another on the trail—there’s a rhythm to it and a visible record of how far one has traveled. All these features not only make text in a paper book easily navigable, they also make it easier to form a coherent mental map of the text.” I love that image of the mental map — I do find it easier to flip through the pages of a paper text to find a passage that I am looking for. Indeed, I can generally remember where it is in regard to which side of the book, and where it is positioned on a page. I cannot do that with an eReader, even with the built-in search function.

  4. Thanks for the link to the fascinating article, “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens.” I really enjoyed both your post, and the linked article. After pondering this subject for the better part of a week, I wish that I could say that I fell squarely in one camp versus the other (i.e. team print books -vs- team digital text). Unfortunately, I keep vacillating between the two and see merits in both. For instance, having been sick in bed for the past few days, I find reading on my Kindle easier than using a print book. I can adjust the display, the background color, and the size of the text. However, I am still not convinced that I retain as much information when reading a non-print book, and find myself having to re-read passages or skim through pages of text to reorient myself. I think that the article in “Scientific American” explains it best: [t]urning the pages of a paper book is like leaving one footprint after another on the trail—there’s a rhythm to it and a visible record of how far one has traveled. All these features not only make text in a paper book easily navigable, they also make it easier to form a coherent mental map of the text.” I love that image of the mental map — I do find it easier to flip through the pages of a paper text to find a passage that I am looking for. Indeed, I can generally remember where it is in regard to which side of the book, and where it is positioned on a page. I cannot do that with an eReader, even with the built-in search function.

  5. I agree with what you stated about how in digital editions, in order for the reader to realize the shift in scenes, they should be attentive. I honestly believe that anyone with a strong background and passion for reading is an attentive reader, only if they read for expanding their knowledge rather than purely just for pleasure. To explain my point, since reading for pleasure does not require much attention when reading, the reader is not necessarily as attentive. But when reading for knowledge is involved, the reader is more focused on the material and trying to grasp the words and the shift in scenes and tone. So to answer your question at the end about how the reading brain retains information, to me it all depends on the reader’s purpose and intention for reading. So when I read for pleasure, I do retain information but I am not as focused on the words or the tone, I’m just focused on the storyline, so I am retaining only information only on the storyline. But when I read for the purpose of knowledge, such as a required book for class, I am more focused with the words so I am retaining information on certain sections, certain scenes where I find the shift in tone interesting, certain imagery. So the answer all depends on what the purpose for reading the book is.

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