Recently, I was at my local library, browsing the stacks and looking for a book on — of all things — cheesemaking. When it struck me that it had been a good long while since I had actually visited a library to learn about a new topic. I froze at that realization and tried to recall the last time I had stepped into an actual library, and I came up dry.
Libraries had been my salvation since I was a small child growing up in an even smaller town. Reading was my escape, my route to new worlds and to fulfillment of my autodidact needs. How had this happened? The library was there all through grammar school for school projects and entertainment. Then through college for papers and study sessions. Then as an adult when I wanted to learn a new skill or delve deeper into a topic. Then when I was a parent, to foster in my own children my love of books.
I realized then that, over the years, my research had slowly, imperceptibly shifted to almost entirely online. This most recent foray was no exception. I found a single book cheesemaking, which turned out to be useless with overly complicated instructions and limited images; the videos on YouTube and narratives on various cheese-related websites that I found later were so much more practical and accessible.
But I didn’t decide to write this blog to talk about cheesemaking. I think this incident instead speaks to a larger change about how and where people are getting their scientific information and the format in which they expect to find it. Do school-aged kids even go to libraries to do research anymore? Does it even make sense to do that? Books are outdated as soon as they are published; yet you can find up-to-date information online on virtually ANY topic in an instant.
I have to admit that although I miss the library, and certainly have a great deal of nostalgia for it as an institution, I get a great deal of satisfaction at having this wealth of knowledge right at my fingertips. Now when someone spouts a scientific fact, I can quickly consult the published literature via http://www.scholar.google.com and find out if what they are saying is supported by peer-reviewed journal articles. Or if an issue is discussed that is a bit over my head, I can school myself quickly with more basic information first to get up to speed.
But do the data support this? Do readers gain knowledge online? A recent article on Slate about how people read online provides some disturbing statistics about how long readers are willing to stick with an article. According to the article, about 40% of readers who land on a web page, leave instantly, and 10% never hit the scroll bar, reading only what they can see. Only about 50% make just past the halfway point.
A Scientific American article took a look at the recent literature on how our brains process information when reading from electronic versus paper sources. Published literature has drawn only a tenuous advantage to paper over electronic. However, research has shown that individuals reading electronic sources lose a certain key aspect of paper reading: mental mapping of information. The idea is that when we read a book, we make a mental map of where in the book we find a certain piece of information. This map is not created in electronic sources, such as e-books, which lack these more tactile navigational features.
But improvements in how web sites are constructed and how e-book readers are designed and used could — and already have begun to — narrow these differences.
Don’t get me wrong, libraries and books are not going away any time soon. Nor should they. But have we come to a time when the use of libraries is diminishing in importance? And if so, how do we ensure that electronic information is not only accessible but able to sustain eyeballs?
Science writer and editor