killing the written word? 12.02.2005, 10:41 AM
posted by lisa lynch
A November 28 Los Angeles Times editorial by American University linguistics professor Naomi Barron adds another element to the debate over Google Print [now called Google Book Search, though Baron does not use this name]: Baron claims that her students are already clamoring for the abridged, extracted texts and have begun to feel that book-reading is passe. She writes:
Much as automobiles discourage walking, with undeniable consequences for our health and girth, textual snippets-on-demand threaten our need for the larger works from which they are extracted... In an attempt to coax students to search inside real books rather than relying exclusively on the Web for sources, many professors require references to printed works alongside URLs. Now that those "real" full-length publications are increasingly available and searchable online, the distinction between tangible and virtual is evaporating.... Although [the debate over Google Print] is important for the law and the economy, it masks a challenge that some of us find even more troubling: Will effortless random access erode our collective respect for writing as a logical, linear process? Such respect matters because it undergirds modern education, which is premised on thought, evidence and analysis rather than memorization and dogma. Reading successive pages and chapters teaches us how to follow a sustained line of reasoning.
As someone who's struggled to get students to go to the library while writing their papers, I think Baron's making a very important and immediate pedagogical point: what will professors do after Google Book Search allows their students to access bits of "real books" online? Will we simply establish a policy of not allowing the online excerpted material to "count" in our tally of student's assorted research materials?
On the other hand, I can see the benefits of having a student use Google Book Search in their attempt to compile an annotated bibliography for a research project, as long as they were then required to look at a version of the longer text (whether on or off-line). I'm not positive that "random effortless access" needs to be diametrically opposed to instilling the practice of sustained reading. Instead, I think we've got a major educational challenge on our hands whose exact dimensions won't be clear until Google Book Search finally gets going.
Also: thanks to UVM English Professor Richard Parent for posting this article on his blog, which has some interesting ruminations on the future of the book.
virginia kuhn on December 2, 2005 3:30 PM:
Rather than worry about online versus print sources, I ask students to use credible sources and to explain how and why the text they are citing has authority. Having 'real' books alongside the 'suspicious' online sources is a great way to look at credibility and teach pathos/ethos/logos. If students can learn evaluation skills, I don't frankly care if they visit the library (though I always take them on a tour and tell them how much time they will save by using the reference librarians who live to help ;-).
Having two daughters in college too, I see how frustrated they become with professors who don't allow online sources, particularly when so many traditional work are now available there. This attitude seems so outdated and yet it is my daughter's youngest teacher who just made this requirement. Very frustrating. Particularly in term of how such teachers posit students (lazy and dim) and, by extension, those of us who work with computer meditated discourse.
This is part of why I see Naomi Barron's analogy with the car as wrongheaded; it is the use technologies are put to that count. My car may discourage me from walking or it may help me to complete mundane tasks more quickly so that I can drive to the mountains to hike for five hours.
Maybe the better comparison is the calculator, which everyone was sure was going to make kids unable to add, subtract, multiply, divide and such. Were I a math professor, I would want to teach how a calculator performs those functions and not worry about rote memorization. Similarly, I see textual analysis as a better use of student time, especially compared with trudging through rows of dusty book shelves looking for sources that my library decides are important enough to house, and hoping no one else has them checked out. I know the digital divide is a gaping one, but it can't be ignored that some libraries are far better stocked than others--the material divide isn't confined to digital environments. Libraries attached to prestigious universities simply have more books. If Google Book Search helps bring access to smaller institutions and to those outside the U.S., that is a use I am willing to champion.
Gary Frost on December 2, 2005 11:15 PM:
A Kirtas type scanner will do 1200 pages per hour straight flipping. If you ran one 24 hours a day (never stopping to change books) you could do a million books printed between 1918 and 1923 (average page count 300) in about 30 years or if you had ten scanners at work 3 years. In three years another million books would be copyright accessible. Every subsequent three year period the million book increment will prove less adequate. To sustain the project a different technology scanning the closed book will be needed. But raw capture time does not include image processing or reformatting for the web. And so on...
Anyway, even if we are talking about the speed of light and all print is suddenly simulated on-line, there are still other thresholds to consider. These are constraints of bionic eye reading, ergonomics of comprehension and retention and haptics of specific reading formats. I am not convinced that the codex mechanism, refined across cultures for over two millennia, can suddenly be superceded by screen based presentation, That is something like imagining the car superceded by the airplane.
Nate Perkins on December 3, 2005 12:46 AM:
Request a favor from you! The Novel--No Title yet! Request a title name for my new book. I need something sound like Google or Current TV or Yahoo maybe. One name I like so is "Google Train Station" The book is about the Under Google's Print Library Project Program. "Google is scanning entire copyrighted books, in some cases without the permission of publishers and authors, then letting people search them using its search engine and view parts of them online. The publishers view the program as a way to promote sales of their books. All the Google programs are free to customers". --Mylene Mangalindan and Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. Author of four books, including 550 pages new book "with no title" due in Mar 2006.
Again, thank for helping me to name by book! My email: email@example.com
Thanks with Respect,
Talk To Me
K.G. Schneider on December 3, 2005 1:38 AM:
Er, is she saying that students who use books in libraries read them end to end? I'm a big believer in the full library experience, but she's kidding herself if she thinks students don't skim. They HAVE to skim. *I* HAVE to skim. I have a stack of seven books to my right and it's killing me that I can't keyword search them because *I don't need the whole damn book, I'm digging for key facts.* It's possible scholarly engagement will increase when books are more accessible online. It's cold in them thar stacks.
bowerbird on December 3, 2005 9:46 PM:
gary frost said:
> I am not convinced that the codex mechanism,
> refined across cultures for over two millennia, can
> suddenly be superceded by screen based presentation,
> That is something like imagining
> the car superceded by the airplane.
hmm. i'm convinced that, by incorporating the refinements
of the codex, a screen-based presentation can match them,
and then eclipse paper-books by virtue of its unique aspects,
things like 24/7 global availability of million-volume libraries.
this is something like imagining e-mail surpassing telegrams.
larisa on December 7, 2005 11:45 PM:
I agree; I think that e-books will soon surpass paper books. There is nothing that paper books offer that e-books can't (at least, when suitable reader devices are developed) - and quite a lot that e-books offer that paper books can't.
For example, how are two students supposed to both be accessing the same book in a paper-based library? Sure, a good library will have several copies - but what if they both find the same rather obscure source and both want to (as Dr. Barron wants them to) read it from cover to cover? I've had that happen - we ended up sharing the book, and it was very inconvenient. And that's not as bad as going to the library and finding that the one book you need for your research is not available - that's also happened to me. If the library had e-copies, we would all just download them and there would be no problem.
As for "snippets" vs. "whole book" - I don't know why a leather-bound volume is somehow less likely to be read in snippets than an electronic book. If you want the students to read the whole thing, give them a book with no index - aren't indices designed to make it possible to find the snippet you want? Books with no page numbers or chapter headings will do it, too. I think the problem is not what form the book is in, but the fact that a lot of college students are barely literate when they enter college, and have never read a book (paper or electronic) from cover to cover. Improve high school education, and you'll get a lot more literate students in college.
ray cha on December 8, 2005 10:47 AM:
I'm also looking forward to the possibilities of access to information that ebooks offer. However, the way the text for ebooks will eventually be available is still unclear. Although there is no technical reason for readers to have to compete for a copy of an ebook text, there are access issues to be considered. ebrary for example offers both subscription and perpetual access. In the subscription model, a text can only be "checked out" one copy at a time. Unfortunately, libraries with smaller budgets may not be able to afford unlimited access of ebooks for its users and the situation of text as a scarce resource remains.