Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Digital reading spaces: how do we really read?

Left buzzing by the most interesting and convincing study I've read yet on the differences between reading screen and print.  The wonderful wood s lot (as so often) led me to this article in the online journal First Monday by Terje Hillesund of Stavanger University, Norway: Digital Reading Spaces: how expert readers handle books, the Web and electronic paper (aha, I abandoned a second post about Norwegian Things when it fell into a cyber-void, but the theme continues).

Reporting on interviews with some fellow Norwegian academics (all intensive screen-users and all still doing much of their scholarly reading from paper) and informed by the latest scientific and sociological research findings, the piece is clearly written and full of fascinating, detailed vignettes of individuals describing and commenting upon their own online and offline reading habits. These ring oh-so true and make the piece entirely accessible and hugely interesting to the general reader. (I suppose what I mean is, this vindicates my own experience as one who reads voraciously on the Web, but prints out anything lengthy or significant to read on the bus - exactly what I did with this article! But it also challenges the status of any single individual's experience, and raises various and open possibilities for the future).

Reading and the body
...In this study, the participants were very conscious of the obligations and allurements of the computer and, preferring paper, all had in different ways developed strategies to avoid being distracted or tempted by the screen while reading, usually positioning their body so as not to stare directly into the beckoning display. Some participants simply turned their back on the computer, using another part of the desk. “Carl” had cleared a well–lit corner of his office couch, and “Eric” said he sometimes found a quiet spot in the canteen to get things read. All said they often read at home.
While reading, the participants use their hands very actively to hold the book or printout in the visual focal area, flicking back and forth in a discontinuous way of reading, as previously described. In addition, especially with printouts, the participants hold a pen, pencil or highlighter in their hand. Using rather different systems, they underline, highlight and make carets or exclamation marks, lines or squiggles, notes or comments, in the margins or around the text. “Carl” said he felt uneasy without a pencil in his hand, and “Susan” said she always operated a highlighter, using it like a weapon to help her concentrate and hunt for important passages. Among the participants, several said that the use of hands, fingers and pen or pencil was an indispensable part of their scholarly reading.
In the interviews, participants described in minute detail how they use their fingers and pencils. “Susan” had the highlighter poised a few centimetres above the text, ready to strike, whereas others, while pointing to and following the text, kept the pencil prepared in a hand resting beside or underneath the text (some participants intermittingly biting its end)...

...This study suggests there are two major challenges for long–form text transference. The first is to replicate conditions for continuous imaginary reading, and the second to create favourable conditions for sustained reflective reading. Whatever the solutions, digital text will under no circumstances be the same as printed text and, in relation to reading experiences; it will never be more than a question of proximity.With regard to the first challenge of continuous reading, it seems clear that the stationary displays of PCs and laptops are unfit for immersive imaginary reading. However, as indicated, there seems to be a relatively easy solution to this particular challenge that nevertheless would require a radial change of attitude for many readers. Handheld devices, especially dedicated e–readers, seem to be capable of giving a fairly good approximation of the reading experience provided by printed books, such as novels, and at the moment e–paper devices seem the most promising. Devices of this kind fit snugly into the hand and let users position the body for reading. While the user cannot flick through the pages in the ordinary way, the devices engage the fingers in paging by clicking buttons. They are generally highly readable, easy on the eye, and some devices indicate where the readers are within the overall text. Thus, current e–paper devices create good conditions for transparency and provide an efficient hermeneutic relation between user and technology. In short, e–paper devices make good alternatives for continuous reading.
The second challenge, to create good conditions for reflective reading, or studying, is more demanding and will require considerable intellectual and technical ingenuity. Concentrated studying often combines continuous and discontinuous reading and, as shown in this article, discontinuous ways of reading involve very active use of the hands in flicking, underlining and annotating, all within the physical unity of a printed text...
...By including a corporeal and material perspective in reading research, and by broadening studies to include different age groups and circumstances, a richer description of reading may result and probably a better understanding of how reading and technology interact in real–life situations. Such insight might assist developers and companies in their efforts to create enhanced reading applications and devices. It might even contribute in bringing texts from the cultural heritage into the digital domain in fashions that secure links to the millennia–long tradition of written discourse...
...After all, as this study confirms, in the foreseeable future there will be many literacy tasks that are best solved using paper.
Read the article in full. 


Dale said...

I have needed each one of the 30 years I've been reading text on screens to learn how to do it. I wonder if kids who actually learn to read on screens will have an easier time of it? I learned how to read paper books, after all, simply because I was desperate for text. I don't think we really know yet what screen-reading is going to be like for people who grew up doing it.

I'm quite sure though that paper reading is going to be displaced in a generation or two. Already I get very frustrated with text that I can't use a search engine on. Where the devil *was* that sentence? God knows: somewhere in the last 400 pages. And text that you can't cut and paste is so tedious to try to pass on!

Jean said...

Et tu, Dale!