Knowledge Center

Communications, Design, Journals, Research, Writing

Is Print Dead?

This question seems to keep living on, and even while more and more information is made more and more accessible, print still exists. Even Bill Gates said:

“Reading off the screen is still vastly inferior to reading off of paper. Even I, who have these expensive screens and fancy myself as a pioneer of this web lifestyle, when it comes to something over about four or five pages, I print it out and I like to have it to carry around with me and annotate. And it’s quite a hurdle for technology to achieve to match that level of usability.”

In scholarly journals, though, the tide is beginning to change. The costs of printing full journals are becoming greater and greater. Whether printing abstracts only or including online supplements, journals are changing. It’s important for each organization to know its members well enough, and to weigh their wants and needs against the costs of print.

In a Scholarly Kitchen post from 2011, Michael Clarke put forth his case about how print editions of journals, for the most part, have become luxuries the industry can no longer afford.

Robert Darnton, an American cultural historian and academic librarian, authored The Case for Books, a collection of essays on the past, present and future of books. In it he reviews Google Books and the effect it has on libraries and knowledge in general.

Darnton states that the democratization of knowledge was set in motion by the invention of writing/hieroglyphics, the codex (ancient book) replacing the scroll, movable type, and the Internet. The next stage, he believes, began in 2009 when Google began digitizing books from research libraries. Google is essentially providing full-text searching of millions of books in the public domain that are now available on the Internet at no cost to the viewer. Darnton’s view is that this is great for:

  • making book learning accessible on a new, worldwide scale
  • opening up the possibilities for research due to the massive amounts of data

But, he says, we still need libraries because:

  • companies decline rapidly in the fast-paced information technology environment
  • Google will make mistakes during the digitization process
  • there’s no guarantee that Google’s copies will last

And lastly, from a more sentimental place, he argues digitized images on a screen fail to capture crucial aspects of a book which include it’s texture, print quality, binding, and even smell. Darnton also believes that paper is still the best medium of preservation, especially as libraries are acquiring more and more material that is “born digital.”

Personally, I think print has its place amongst the digital formats, and I agree that the nature of the journal or publication can determine to which degree. As more of our lives are becoming vastly digital and content heavy, I am starting to see a sort of backlash toward a simpler way. Pencil and paper, real books…it will be interesting to see how the next few years play out. I, for one, know tonight I’ll cozy up with a cup of tea and a good book.


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