Should books be replaced with digital versions?

As a self-confessed "digital dinosaur" I struggle to keep up with modern technology. I reluctantly purchased my first laptop when I was no longer able to buy ribbon for my aged typewriter. I am the very unenthusiastic owner of a smartphone which is without a doubt much smarter than its user. I readily accept that I remain blissfully ignorant as the world of technology bypasses me and it doesn’t worry me. Or at least it didn’t until I overheard a conversation between a grandmother and her four-year-old grandson outside my local library recently.

The small boy was holding his grandmother’s hand and trying to drag her towards the library doors, begging to be allowed inside to choose a book. She smiled sweetly at the boy and said, “We don’t need to visit the library anymore, Granny’s got a Kindle.”

I am not worried that eighty-year old grannies have a better handle on technology than I but I do worry for the future of the book and all that it symbolises. I understand the simplicity of an electronic device replacing books in exactly the way that digital music has usurped the CD (or vinyl LP in my case) – instant access to a wide selection of books or music that you don’t need miles of shelving to store. But books bring us so much more than the words they contain and the stories they tell. Books offer not just a cerebral but a whole sensory experience; they have texture and a smell, and library or second-hand books also have a history – who else’s hands have held this book, and how did they feel about the words they read, who wrote those notes in the margin? 

What is lost when you have no pages to turn.
What is lost when you have no pages to turn. Photo: Getty

As Australia strives to be at the forefront of technology, twenty-four Australian schools are currently trialling a book-free learning system. Using a website and linked app, teachers and high school students can access a range of digital textbooks, mapped to the Australian curriculum, from school, home or on the move, providing they are able to BYOD (Bring Your Own Device).

Of course I understand the shift; books require intense resources to produce and they are heavy. High school students sometimes resemble Galapagos turtles struggling to school with their enormous shell-like backpacks; if they were to topple backwards they might never be able to right themselves, arms and legs waving in the air like stranded beetles. I am of an age where I did my backpacking in the nineties, hauling my own bodyweight in Lonely Planet guides around Asia. There was definitely no room in my bag for clean undies AND a toothbrush, it was an either or situation if all the guide books had to come along. I definitely comprehend some of the weight advantages of electronic books.

One Australian student involved in the bookless trial has mixed feelings about it; "Fewer books means less weight to carry to and from home. Also, you can’t forget any since they are all loaded on the iPad,” says year 9 student, Clare. “Another advantage is that the apps are a great learning tool for sourcing help and further information.” She goes on to say there is one big downside. “It can be very distracting. Most students play games on the iPad throughout class, as they are unable to be blocked by the school.”

Clare’s mum was shocked by her daughter’s revelation that the students are playing games in class but still feels that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, confident that the school can manage inappropriate use.

“I’m happy for my daughter to trial this new system because it is the future. It will make the transition from high school to university much easier.”

Our children are “digital natives” and technology-based learning is often their preference. I find it easier to persuade my children to do homework on Reading Eggs or Mathletics than to write a story or complete a worksheet with a pencil in their hand instead of a mouse. I do completely understand this shift towards digital learning, but I can’t help but lament the demise of the humble book that has served readers well since the Tang Dynasty and I wonder if we might be losing something irreplaceable. Research shows growing up near books can have a significant effect on the levels of academic achievement children can reach. 

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For years, educators believed the strongest predictor of attaining high levels of education was having parents who were highly educated. New research shows a stronger indicator is directly linked to the numbers of books children have access to at home. According to a twenty year study led by Mariah Evans, Associate Professor of Sociology and Resource Economics at the University of Nevada, USA, parents who have books in the home increase the level of education their children will obtain, irrespective of other factors. Evans’ massive study showed the difference between being raised in a bookless home compared to a home with a 500-book library has as great an effect on the level of education a child will attain as having parents who are barely literate compared to parents with a university education. 

'Books in Homes' is a small but remarkable Sydney-based charity providing new books to over 20,000 disadvantaged children across Australia, emphasising remote and low socio-economic communities. General Manager of Books in Homes, Kim Kingston says, “The importance of bound books should not be underestimated. Our research shows that having as few as twenty age-appropriate books of choice in the home has a significant impact on propelling children to a higher level of education.”

Anne Cummings, a primary school principal, accepts that digital books can play an important role in children’s education but advises parents to encourage children to continue enjoying bound books;

“We need to use all resources available to help educate children. Digital books have their place in schools but not to the detriment of bound books. There is something very special about a book; even its appearance and texture can evoke emotions in readers which digital books do not.”

Anne also advises parents to encourage the skills of researching using text books. “Flicking through pages of encyclopaedias to find answers takes children on a wonderful, meandering learning journey enhancing their general knowledge. I would not want children to lose the ability to reference information through books because they rely too heavily on search engines.”

There is also the issue of portability and sharing. “Taking a favourite book outside to a special place, or lying on the floor with friends is something children still take great pleasure from and I would not want to see this lost in schools,” concludes Anne.

I understand the future is here and digital books are part of that future but I can’t help thinking cuddling up with children at bedtime around a Kindle is not quite the same as turning the pages of a book together. I don’t yet feel ready to see books go the way of dodos and dinosaurs, especially as I am a bit of a diplodocus myself.

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