Like most school librarians, I love books! As a child and young adult, I spent a lot of time in both my school and local public libraries, browsing the shelves for my latest reads and leaving with bags full of books. At home, I had a bookshelf overflowing with books, many of which had been purchased from school book fairs and monthly book club flyers. I love physical books – not just the stories they contain, but the aspects related to collecting them, organizing them on shelves, browsing through them, turning pages, and smelling that wonderful book scent.
After reading A Brief History of the Book: From Tablet to Tablet by Steven K. Galbraith (2020), I now realize that the love I developed for physical books is actually a love for the codex. “A codex, in its most basic form, are leaves of paper, or another substrate, gathered together and bound along the long edge so that it can be opened and closed and the pages can be turned” (8).
Galbraith (2020) expands the definition of the term “book” to “a variety of technologies that present texts and images to readers” (8). Formats of books have evolved over 5,000 years, beginning with the cuneiform, papyrus and parchment rolls, and wax tablets. Following those formats,
The codex came into its own in around the fourth century in manuscript form, and then in the mid-15th century in print. All in all, the codex is about 2,000 years old and still a part of everyday life in most parts of the world. The evolution of the codex is remarkable. It begins with about 1,500 years of producing books by hand, to roughly 450 years of printing primarily with a hand press, to about 200 years of manufacturing books with mechanical machines (104).
The age of digital reading spans a comparatively brief period of history, beginning with the introduction of personal computers in the mid-1970s and e-readers in the late 1990s. This opened up a new world of possibilities for accessing books. Amazon’s Kindle e-reader debuted in 2007 and quickly popularized digital reading. What is interesting to note is that the first generation Kindle appears to reflect several of the most significant historical book technologies in a single device. For example:
- It was a handheld tablet (similar to the cuneiform or wax tablet)
- It included a scrolling feature (similar to the linear nature of the papyrus or parchment scrolls)
- It presented “digital texts as pages that needed to be turned” (similar to the codex) (Galbraith 2020, 107)
- It included a QWERTY keyboard for inputting data (the same keyboard layout used in typewriters and personal computers to print text in books) (Galbraith 2020)
I jumped on the digital reading bandwagon in 2009 with the purchase of my first Kindle. I greatly appreciated how quickly I could access a book – no waiting! I also liked how I could store multiple books on my device – this really cut down on baggage weight when I traveled. The accessibility options such as the ability to change the font size, utilize text-to-voice, and adjust the backlighting were very helpful, as well. I continue to use my Kindle today, primarily for fiction reading.
Though I enjoy the benefits offered by digital books and e-readers, I have found several drawbacks to using them. I actually read A Brief History of the Book in digital format but experienced several obstacles in getting started. First, I couldn’t get it to download from the library site into the requisite mobile app. So, I opted instead to read it via the library site within my web browser. But then all of the pages would not load. So, I had to return to the mobile app and troubleshoot the issue. I deleted the app, downloaded it again, and then reset my username and password. Once I finally got the app to download the book, it abruptly shut down to install an update. At that point, I just set my tablet down and walked away because I was so frustrated. I really wished I had just obtained a physical copy of the book because I probably would have had it half-read by then! With the need to troubleshoot the myriad technical issues that can arise when accessing digital books, one must be highly skilled and motivated to read them. Because of this, I doubt that I will develop the same level of love for the digital book as I have for the physical codex.
Given that the codex has endured for 2,000 years and the digital book has been around for roughly 25 years, I don’t think it’s wise to assume that digital books will completely replace physical books as some people claim. What is fair to recognize is that both physical and digital books have a place in our school libraries. Readers have different preferences and needs that both formats can accommodate. The school library is now better positioned to meet the needs of all learners by making multiple formats available to them. However, school librarians must be ready and able to equip learners with the requisite digital literacy skills to be able to navigate the complexities of accessing them and then nurture a love for reading through them. I believe this begins by examining one’s own willingness to engage with digital formats and learning how to work through the process. What are your experiences with digital books and how do you teach your students to access them? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.
Galbraith, Steven. A Brief History of the Book: From Tablet to Tablet. Santa Barbara: Libraries Unlimited, 2020.
Author: Melanie Lewis Croft
Melanie Lewis Croft is an assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of West Georgia and program coordinator for its fully online School Library Media Program. Dr. Croft has worked with all grade levels and subject areas across a variety of learning environments in public, private, urban, and rural school systems. She served the K-12 field of education for 17 years as a state-certified elementary level classroom teacher, secondary level library media specialist, and district administrator of technology, library services, and curriculum. Since 2014, Dr. Croft has worked at the university level as both a faculty member and program coordinator of two graduate education programs in school library media. She currently serves AASL as a member of the School Library Research Editorial Board and contributor to the Knowledge Quest Blog.