A question that is repeatedly faced by educators and students is how can we know whether to trust a source of information or not and what sources should we value. I wonder if at some point not long after Gutenberg’s invention of the press if educators debated the merits of printed works over handwritten. Were students admonished for ignoring scrolls in favour of books and was paper derided as an inferior source to wax tablets? Such is the dilemma faced in the digital age as we struggle with the question of books versus the web or libraries versus the internet.
It is a question with perhaps no clear answer for the moment and yet a sense of inevitability that the future will be dominated by the delivery of information in digital formats. With the convergence of mobile devices and ubiquitous access to the internet just a short promise away it seems that the potential to carry entire libraries worth of books and reading matter in a pocketable device should send printers out of business. The ease of purchase and wide selection of books available online is already making it most difficult for bookstores that are not able to value add to their customer’s experience. For larger stores unable to offer a bespoke shopping experience to a community of readers this has already occurred, remember Borders? But beyond books the internet places at our fingers a wealth of information and resources that few but the largest of libraries may ever hope to match and across formats and media. Why then do Libraries and with them books persist? What is it that makes books continue to appeal not just to a few as may be the case with vinyl records but to many?
There is something magical about opening a physical book. The mystery that is exposed and unpacked with each turning of the page. The feel of the pages, its weight and its shifting balance as you progress page by page towards its ending. Time in a well stocked library is like a walk in a forest of potential ideas, you feel their possibility through your skin and breathe in their vapours. On my shelf I have two volumes from 1886 written by James Martineau and titled ’Types of Ethical Theory’. Perhaps not as prestigious as the copy of Freud’s ‘Interpretation of Dreams’ that lies in its modern cover beside them but more special partly for their age and partly as they hold the handwritten notes of their previous owner (Frederick Wearne) from 1945. These are books with a history of their own and I like to imagine why they may have been selected reading at such a significant time in world history.
Lately I have been reading books more frequently, it was habit I had moved away from relying instead on podcasts for ideas. At first I relied on audiobooks and still do but often I wanted to read a piece over and over to parse its meaning and at other times I wished to quote from what I had read. Often I would supplement my listening with the purchase of a digital copy of the book for reading on a device; a routine I am sure the publishers and online sellers appreciated. Increasingly I found I wanted to share my reading with colleagues and while sharing is becoming a possibility with digital books it relies on a degree of tech savviness not all have and of course access to an appropriate device. For ease of sharing a physical book has digital licked and so I have been purchasing some books in old fashioned paper version such that they may be handed on and have their ideas spread. Maybe this why books are not going away.
What is interesting is the debate that occurs around the choices young people apparently make around their sources of information. ‘They just ignore the books’ is one often repeated claim or “they just go straight to Google and find the answer’. Not always but often the underlying message is that by not using books they are at great risk of being misinformed and led astray by poorly sourced information from the likes of Wikipedia. There is a reality that students are often poorly equipped to use the information available to them on the internet, rely too heavily on the first results provided by their favourite search engine and rely too much on a small selection of sources. They make poor use of the tools available to them and even when they do stumble upon the best sources use them poorly. I see many students skip away from an excellent source because it fails to answer their question with a snappy graphic and requires some detailed reading. But then did we not do the same thing when all we had were books? Were we all highly capable users of the Dewey system with well honed skills for skimming and scanning pages of information? As Alan November states our goal should be to equip students with skills to find and use the very best information available to them, not to advocate for use of one media over another with no good reason.
At the core of the issue is one of trust. Can I trust this source of information over another? On the surface level this too frequently becomes a discussion of the media used for the information. The internet versus books. The questions should go much deeper. Can I trust the research methods used? Is this author reliable? Is the information accurate and a true reflection of some version of reality? Does it relate to my inquiry? Has the research been repeated and if so by whom? Is there a bias in this writing or is it politically motivated? So many good questions to ask about every source of information we rely upon and ones that have little to do with how we access it. In a time when journalism, publishing and advertising go hand in hand these are questions we should ask often. There is much more to be explored here than a question of books versus the internet and our students deserve to be provided with the skills and dispositions required to ensure they can and do make use of the very best information available to them.
By Nigel Coutts