Print vs. Digital Debate -- Was it Over When the Germans Bombed Pearl Harbor?
There is no shortage of opinions when it comes to people’s perceptions of “print vs. digital” in the area of information consumption, and books in particular. There are extreme opinions on both sides – print is dead vs. print will never go away – and like a lot of debates, the truth is probably somewhere in between.
Many people are convinced that the days of print books are numbered, or already over, and to be honest I can see their point. Every day I seem to think it’s more likely that this is becoming the case. But then something happens like the recent kerfluffle (do people still use that word?) at Syracuse University, and I’m not so sure.
Increasingly, I’m of the opinion that – for at least the next few years – we’re going to live in a “combined” world where both print and digital are needed. This has been a recurring theme at a few recent conferences, the latest being the excellent Publishing Business Conference this month. Like I said in a previous blog post, we shouldn’t get so caught up in one delivery method (eBooks, in this case) that we ignore the other perfectly good delivery options (print) that are available.
But back to my original point about the Syracuse case. In case you don’t feel like following the link above, here’s a brief recap (just the high points): The Dean of Libraries at Syracuse (my old job) made the decision to remove a bunch of print books from the library and store them offsite for space savings, because the library was running out of room. Nothing unique there, lots of libraries do that.
Unfortunately, she had been quoted at a recent conference (she says she was taking an intentionally extreme position to spark debate on a panel) saying: “Let’s face it: the library, as a place, is dead. Kaput. Finito. And we need to move on to a new concept of what the academic library is.”
(Note: I think I deserve some credit for my maturity by not finding a way to work in the old joke about the [insert name of rival school here] library burning down, and both books were lost. The really sad news is that one of them wasn’t even colored in yet. It’s a good thing I’m not juvenile.)
The thing that fascinated me about this case is that a group of 200 faculty members – and students! – got their pitchforks and torches, and made a big ruckus about the decision, so much so that the university is taking another look at its plans.
The significance of that, you might ask? Well, I – like a lot of people, I think – assume a great deal of this print vs. digital divide comes down to generational differences. We all know the stereotypes (admit it, I just did) that we think the typical “book hugger” is a bit advanced in years, and just won’t give up the comfort of that warm and cozy print book. Conversely, the digital native (I’m not crazy about that term, or the concept) is a young person (millennial or the like) who hardly buys or reads print, and expects all of his or her content to be available digitally.
Not so, says the Syracuse Library incident (I just promoted it to an “incident,” wow?).
There is a lot more going on in the Syracuse case than is relevant here – the changing role of libraries in academia, *how* the decision was made seems to irk some people, and other issues. But I found the case fascinating in the stereotypes it crushed on the print vs. digital debate.
The truth is that it is really hard to draw clean lines around this issue. And – hold the phone – the way people want to consume book information is as varied as are the disciplines and use cases we cover. Immersive reading, referential reading, mobile reference, within a workflow, studying for an exam, etc., are all vastly different forms of reading content that could come from a “book.”
And finally, the fact that *students* were included in the protest group at Syracuse was fascinating, and makes one wonder whether a generational split is really the best way think about this split. Or does a split exist at all?
Generational stereotyping is a dangerous thing. (As Ferris Bueller said: ‘isms in my opinion are not good.') I know plenty of people my age and older who have mad technology skills. True, I don’t know too many young people who are technologically illiterate, but it’s not an either/or proposition. It is safe to say that society as a whole is getting more technologically savvy, not just these crazy kids today.
And that’s a good thing. So we will have these debates about print vs. digital, and I think those debates are meaningful. But don’t think for a second that our customers only want good content in one form, because it just isn’t so. And if you don’t believe me, just ask the folks at the Syracuse Library.
Jabin White is Vice President of Content Management for ITHAKA, an organization committed to helping the academic community use digital technologies to preserve the scholarly record and to advance research and teaching in sustainable ways. ITHAKA provides several services to the academic community, including JSTOR and Portico, which increase access to scholarly materials and ensure their preservation for future generations.
With a heavy background in XML theory and practice, White has spent most of his career evangelizing the benefits of markup languages and related technologies, including content management, workflow enhancements and authoring tools.
Prior to joining ITHAKA, White served as Director of Strategic Content at Wolters Kluwer Health's Professional & Education (P&E) Division, Vice President, STM Sales for Scope eKnowledge Center, and VP of Product Development at Silverchair, Inc., a leading developer of information solutions for health care publishers.
He also spent five years as Executive Director of Electronic Production at Elsevier, serving the Health Sciences Division. White started in health sciences publishing as an editorial assistant at Current Medicine and has held digital publishing positions at Mosby, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins and Unbound Medicine. He is a graduate of Wake Forest University with a BA in history and has a Masters in Business Administration from Pennsylvania State University.