Students, Reading, and Ebooks


E-book: an electronic version of a printed book which can be read on a personal computer or dedicated handheld device.

–Oxford English Reference Dictionary

A 2012 study at the University of Ulster by Sarah Smyth and Andrew P. Carlin provides mixed messages regarding students’ attitudes toward ebooks and their actual use of them. Students claimed to prefer printed texts, objecting to ebooks because of difficulties in navigation and the distractions of the internet.  Yet they also used ebooks “heavily during peak study times prior to exams and assessment deadlines” (Smyth and Carlin, 195).

A “sizeable chunk of respondents,” however, did not engage with electronic texts at all, suggesting that reading competencies or digital competencies (or both) may be splitting into those who can use etexts comfortably and those who won’t or can’t.

Most students in this study accessed ebooks through “a laptop or PC (68%), followed by smartphone (21%), ebook reader (9%), and tablet computer (1%)” (188).  Reading a novel or an epic on a smartphone seems dispiriting–and bad for one’s eyes.

Students found ebooks helpful for making copies, and they appreciated their remote access, searchability, and cost, but they overwhelmingly preferred print (71.4% and 61.6%) for “pleasure of reading and ease of reading” (189).  They tended to use ebooks for research (66%), with only 18% reading ebooks for pleasure and 12% for lecture preparation (186).

The table below lists the most popular kinds of ebooks:

Texbooks                               56%

Fiction                                    19%

Research monographs           18%

Encyclopedias & Dictionaries  7%

This study unearths a utilitarian approach to reading–unsurprising, given that most reading by students will be homework.  But it also hints tantalizingly at students’ desire for the pleasure of printed texts.   At what  point do we begin to consider whether we are encouraging students to enjoy reading? Are the digital texts we make available conducive to the pleasure of reading?  Is it time to acknowledge that printed texts offer a more functional, concentrated, and pleasurable reading experience than ebooks, something we want to share with students?  Do we need to consider the cult of the printed book and the pleasure of reading as parts of a successful teaching formula that ought not be erased by the prevalence and fashion of ebooks?

Works Cited

Sarah Smyth and Andrew P. Carlin, “Use and Perception of Ebooks in the University of Ulster: A Case Study,” New Review of    Academic Librarianship, 18:176-205, 2012.

4 Responses to “Students, Reading, and Ebooks”

  1. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Thanks for this post, Anna. For the past few years I have been regularly teaching a survey course addressing manuscript, print, and digital cultures at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. One of the important strands in the course is the history of reading, and frequent discussions entail reading as a historical practice, the way we read today, and the way reading is being transformed.

    Like the students that Smyth and Carlin have studied, my students have consistently expressed a strong preference for print when dealing with academic material that requires careful reading. Not only do they say that prefer printed texts for comprehension but also that reading print texts enhances their recall. Many also express an appreciation for the printed book for pleasure reading because of the tactile experience (something that Andrew Piper discusses at length in his chapter “Take It and Read” in The Book Was There: Reading in the Electronic Age [2012]).

    Among our readings for this course are essays from Eliot and Rose’s A Companion to the History of the Book. Our library has the e-version with unlimited users, so I no longer require the print text. Most students, however, bring printed copies of the essays to class.

    Ferris Jabr’s “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens.” (The Scientific American 11 April 2013) supplies a look at the science behind these student preferences. Pew has also recently reported on a study that shows so many high school students preferring print for many situations even though most own and constantly use multiple digital devices for various reading needs.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Thanks, Eleanor, for directing us to Ferris Jabr’s “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens.” I was particularly interested in the following passage:

    Even so, evidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension. Compared with paper, screens may also drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it a little harder to remember what we read when we are done. A parallel line of research focuses on people’s attitudes toward different kinds of media. Whether they realize it or not, many people approach computers and tablets with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Yes, this passage is an especially interesting one.

    This article, “The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip, and Print Is Far From Dead” in yesterday’s New York Times seems relevant here.

    As an aside, based on Dan Raff’s work at Wharton, it is simplistic to attribute Borders’s demise to ebooks. Rather, Walmart’s expansion plan after it purchased Borders , penchant for long-term rental space, abandonment of Borders’s original target market, and more led to its failure.


  4. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Thanks, Eleanor. You have an endless storehouse of great articles! I had not seen this one.

    The NYT article provides an interesting and encouraging view of the prevailing love for printed books . I was just in Northshire Books in Saratoga, and I was reminded of how soothing bookstores can be. Northshire has appropriated and expanded the Starbuck’s creative climate effect.

    Northshire (which opened in Manchester Center Vt, and was one of the first bookshops to have an Espresso Book Machine), now has branched out to other locations. The Saratoga branch is beautifully organized, the kind of store one would drive for hours to visit. Every spa town needs a good bookstore.

    The cult of the book is not going away–and it shouldn’t.


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