Books and Literacy in the Digital Age

Can we grow technophiles who are also bibliophiles?

July 13, 2010


I’d like to admit something to you upfront: I love books. I don’t mean the “isn’t-the-new-Stephen-King-great” type of love. I’m talking about a real passion here: I love the way the binding cracks the first time you open a new hardcover book; the little globules of glue that cling to the corners of the binding; the feel of a small book held in one hand, or the heft of a large book as it sits on your lap. But most of all—and I admit this without the least iota of shame—I love the smell of ink and paper, whether old or new. It’s absolute olfactory heaven.

Don’t get me wrong. I still love my BlackBerry, my Xbox, and using the internet for research or to shop at all hours of the day. In fact, technology shares my life with books in equal parts. And that’s precisely why I’m so perplexed when I read articles or hear on the news that books are slowly and inexorably vanishing, that computers, handheld eReaders, and iPods will surely win out and force books out of our schools, our libraries, and ultimately, our lives.

Not so fast! Codices—or books as we know them now—have been in their current form for nearly 2,000 years, and the technology that threatens their existence has only been around for four decades—two decades if you count widespread use. But before we can discuss how the new technology can be used side-by-side with books to promote literacy, it behooves us to first understand how we got to this point as well as the demographic that is sounding the death knell for printed matter.

Millennials and the Matthew effect

As a librarian, it stands to reason that at some point in your career you’ve wondered just how you can help get young people to enjoy reading. Well, I’m here to tell you that if you’ve ever felt like a failure in that regard—don’t. The simple fact is this: Literacy starts at home. If parents surround their child with books, read to him or her from the start, and promote reading throughout the child’s development, chances are quite good that the child will grow up to be a reader. And the more he or she reads, the more he or she will read.

This is illustrated by the Matthew effect, a term coined by sociologist Robert K. Merton. It’s a phenomenon whereby the rich get richer and the poor get poorer; when applied to reading, it can be said that the more a child reads, the more he or she can read. Vocabulary skills get stronger, more intricate plots can be followed, and what once seemed a chore can soon be enjoyable. It’s just like exercise: Do it every day and you’ll feel energized; do it once a month and you’ll be in pain.

Millennials—people who were born roughly between 1980 and 1995—have been quite literally growing up alongside the technological advances in the informational realm. As such, many have grown into technophiles and bibliophobes, as well as people who feel at home doing five things at once. It’s easy to pick them out in a crowd: They can frequently be seen texting, listening to music, watching TV, instant messaging, and doing homework—all at the same time. Some would argue that the proliferation of electronic media in children’s lives would cause them to become functionally illiterate. This isn’t really true; in fact the opposite is true—our youth in recent years have become e-literate.

E-literacy and the false promise of technology

The milestones in the history of the printed word were initially spread out over several thousand years. It took civilization nearly 7,000 years to get from the invention of writing, through the inventions of the scroll and the codex, and eventually to the invention of moveable type—introduced through the printing of the Gutenberg Bible in 1455. Since that milestone, though, there haven’t been many earth-shattering developments to advance the printed word. But with the advent of the internet in 1969, information technology accelerated at an exponential rate—something that has not escaped the notice of one particular global demographic, the millennials.

A 2007 study showed that frequent television viewing during adolescence caused attention deficiencies—a fact that can only make you wonder what the added effect of all the new technology has done to the average attention span and the ability to read anything longer than a blog entry. You would think that schools would try to counter this trend by putting more funding into their school libraries and reading programs. You’d be wrong.

According to Todd Oppenheimer in his book The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom, and How Learning Can Be Saved, from the early 1990s through the first part of this century, school districts across the country spent billions of dollars promoting computer-based learning, promising that computers would engage students in a way that books could not. A school district in Union City, California, spent $37 million to buy computer equipment and software—and paid for it by cutting science equipment and field trips. An elementary school in Los Angeles dropped its music program in order to hire a “technology manager.” But we need to ask ourselves: After nearly two decades of this philosophy, have we seen a rise in literacy? The answer, sadly, is no—or at the very least, not nearly enough to justify what we have lost in the process.

But there is one bright spot in these sobering statistics: You must be functionally literate in order to use the internet. This has led to a phenomenon called e-literacy, a practice begun and perfected by millennials.

E-literacy incorporates all of the reading children do online as opposed to offline hard-copy text. Chances are that any random child spends more time instant messaging, texting, blogging, creating or adding to wikis, doing online research, tweeting, or using social networks like Facebook or MySpace than curled up with a good book. But when parents and teachers criticize the amount of time kids spend online, they’re forgetting one key fact: You have to be literate to use the internet effectively. By focusing children’s enthusiasm for online exploration and expression on powerful educational tools, parents and teachers can promote literacy alongside technology.

Kindles and Readers and Nooks—Oh, my!

The Amazon Kindle, the Sony Reader, and the new Barnes and Noble Nook are great tools to have for casual and avid readers alike—with some drawbacks. You can put thousands of books into your digital reader and take it on vacation with you. It also allows you to adjust the font size for easier reading; if you need a large-print book, you can simply buy the original version and resize it. And e-book pricing can’t be beat: You’ll pay anywhere from $6 to $10 per book, so if you’re a voracious reader, the digital reader will pay for itself in lower book prices. You can even take notes in the electronic margins of the e-book you’re reading, just as you would in a hard copy. And the ability to wirelessly download a book instantaneously makes it almost a no-brainer to buy, right? Wrong.

The same things that make digital readers great can make them not so great, and sometimes in a scary way. In July 2009, Amazon pulled digital copies of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 from its Kindle store because the publisher of those books decided it didn’t want to offer a Kindle edition anymore. In an ironic Big Brother-esque twist, Amazon also remotely deleted every copy of those e-books that people had already purchased and offered instead a voucher for a future purchase. This action was tantamount to somebody sneaking into your house in the middle of the night, taking one of your books off your shelf, and leaving in its place a bookstore gift card for a different title. One major problem (besides the obvious one) is that some people—college students in particular—had taken notes in the margins of their e-book copies of 1984 and Animal Farm in advance of writing a paper or taking an exam. Those notes—along with their books—vanished into thin air.

This is the biggest drawback to digital readers. There are other e-book downsides that hard-copy book readers don’t need to worry about. Books don’t have batteries that run out. You don’t have to turn your book off on takeoff and landing, which has to be very annoying to e-book readers; after all, isn’t one of the biggest advantages that you can take lots of books with you on vacation in one small device? And at the beach, spilled tanning lotion or rogue waves are apt to be less destructive to your paperback.

But Kindles, Readers, and Nooks can actually help parents, teachers, and librarians make children more literate. In a recent informal poll of a 5th-grade class, students were asked how many would admit to not reading as much as they think they should—to which approximately half replied in the affirmative. That half were then asked how many thought getting a digital reader for the holidays would inspire them to read more. Half raised their hands. Simply by having a cool new gadget in their hands with the ability to download their books instantly,  could potentially increase literacy in one grade in one school by 25%. If boards of education across the country still want to spend the bulk of their funds on digital initiatives, I would submit that they consider putting digital readers in the hands of their students, instead of subscribing to the Next Great Thing in the digital realm: the digital library.

The Google Project and digital libraries

One of the greatest advantages to having a digital reader is the ability to wirelessly download content 24 hours a day. If you’re just looking for free e-books, then Project Gutenberg is the place for you. There are over 30,000 books available for download to any portable device: PC, cell phones, or readers. Most works are classics whose copyright has expired—hence the cost-free price tag.

The convenience and accessibility of e-books haven’t gone unnoticed by many library organizations, most notably the Internet Archive, which boasts “over one million books—free to the print-disabled.” But there’s much more than that; the archive allows for downloads of movies, software, and audio files as well. Other similar projects include the World Digital Library, sponsored by UNESCO, NetLibrary (until recently operated by OCLC and now operated by EBSCO), and the Internet Public Library, which has special areas for kids and teens. Many online libraries allow for the download of digital content for a specified period of time, after which the content is disabled.

But no digital library has garnered nearly the attention that Google has for its efforts to digitize every book ever printed. To that end, in 2004 Google teamed up with the New York Public Library to digitize its collection and shortly thereafter joined forces with the Library of Congress to do the same. It didn’t take long for Google to run into a wall: authors didn’t want people to be able to download their books for free. Lawsuits were filed, and to date the issue hasn’t been resolved. And although Google continues digitizing books each day some book content simply cannot be accessed online—most notably books written after 1915 (most books are copyrighted until 95 years of publication, after which they fall into the public domain).

You may have heard about this but never realized what a great research tool it can be for use in the classroom, library, and at home. Let’s say you need to find the passage that depicts one of the greatest images in American literature: Tom Sawyer whitewashing a fence. Navigate your web browser to Google. At the top where it says “More,” use the dropdown menu and click on “Books.” Type “Tom Sawyer” in the search box, then click on the first book that comes up, which should be The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (if not, it should be second or third). In the search box on the left, type “fence.” Every instance of the word fence in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer will be displayed on the screen. The scene you’re looking for can be found within the first 20 or so pages, so you’ll want to click on one of the lower page numbers. And there you have it: You’ve found a famous literary passage in less than a minute (with practice). Using the advanced book search at the top helps you to refine search terms and keywords to get exactly what you’re looking for.

This powerful tool in helping children to “get back to literature” uses the thing they love most—technology. It’s also just one small thing that parents, teachers, and librarians can use to help society develop a culture of literacy and get our kids reading again.

Creating a culture of literacy

Computers, it must be said, are causing irreparable harm to our literary history and heritage. Visit the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City some time and revel in the different drafts written by Dickens, Hemingway, Faulkner, and the like. Look at all the cross-outs and notes in margins that give us a peek into the creative process like nothing else can. Read entire sections of text that never made it into the finished masterpiece as you ponder what, exactly, made this passage unworthy of the final book.

Then, think of the fact that books aren’t written like that anymore. Future masterpieces may not have drafts that we can look at and pore over in wonder. Everything is done by computer now; the first draft is written, then changed and changed again—possibly with previous versions deleted or unsaved. We may never have any way of knowing what was going on in the thought processes of our present and future literary masters.

But we will always have the buildings they helped to create: temples built for the love of books. It always escapes me why teachers hardly ever think to take their classes on field trips to our country’s greatest libraries. For me, every trip to Washington, D.C., is crowned by a visit to the main reading room of the Library of Congress. You think the dome in the Capitol Building is beautiful? It pales in comparison to the pantheon of books at the Library of Congress, and the new myLOC program allows students to register a passport, then use it to answer questions about the library by examining their surroundings. They can also download and save images from LC to their passport account and view it all online from home.

New York Public Library is one of the most beautiful structures in the city and houses one of the 48 copies in existence of the Gutenberg Bible as well as the original Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed animals that A. A. Milne based his books on—all on public display. Blocks away is the Morgan Library and Museum, which houses one of the greatest private collections of books and manuscripts ever amassed. The items on display are constantly rotated, so frequent visits there are always rewarded with something new.

Another way to get children interested in reading is through reading groups. Adults have them and should encourage their children to get friends together and form groups of their own. The Harry Potter rage was a phenomenon because it became a social event. It transcended the literary realm because it was marketed into every facet of our culture: movies, T-shirts, games. Midnight release parties and costumed events became part of a child’s social world and were accepted by almost everyone. We’ll probably never see its like again—the Twilight series came close but only gained a fraction of the interest worldwide.

If we can’t socialize books on such a grand scale again, we can do it on a smaller town-by-town basis. Reading groups socialize children and make them feel like they belong to a club. They can choose what they want to read without being told what to read by a teacher. Each child feels important when it’s his or her turn to choose the next book for the group to read, and groups held at different houses allow the parents to host their own social event while the children discuss the book. I’ve seen it work in various towns, and it has a somewhat viral effect; the more kids who are involved in the group, the more kids who want to join. Nonmembers begin to feel like they’re missing out on something. Physical—not digital—libraries are the cornerstone of democracy. They must not—and will not—fail.

Robert Darnton of Harvard University makes this point in The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future. Libraries are the one place in the world where books and technology meet. And since copyright issues will most likely never be resolved, people will always need to find a physical book on a physical shelf. Also, not every book can be digitized; there have been different versions of books throughout history, and permission will never be granted by every institution to digitize those editions. The works of William Shakespeare are an example: They have been changed and modified through successive editions over the last 500 years. We will never see every version of his works on Google.

And if you’re still thinking that I’m a little strange for dwelling so much on a book’s physical properties—size, shape, feel, and, yes, even smell—consider this interesting tidbit from Darnton’s book: In a recent poll taken at a French university, 43% of students queried considered smell to be an important aspect of a book and refused to buy the electronic edition. CafeScribe, a French online publisher, has tried to counter this aversion to digital books by supplying stickers to their customers that give off a “bookish” smell when affixed to their computers. It turns out that the tactical and olfactory experience is just as important to a reader’s enjoyment of a book as its content. I feel vindicated.

RALPH RAAB has been a teacher of music, computers, and study skills in East Hanover, New Jersey, for over 20 years and is the author of The Dewey Deception: The First Adventure from the Biblio Files, as well as the forthcoming The Gutenberg Gambit. He can be reached at