Bookless Libraries and Literacy: Adapting Digital Reading Habits

You may have heard about Florida’s newest university, Florida Polytechnic University. The yet-to-be-accredited STEM school began its first classes last month. What’s so notable about this school? It has an interesting feature… a 100% bookless library.

FPU’s library is instead supported entirely through e-books and e-resources. Their director of libraries, Kathryn Miller, believes that using technology to access information will help students better prepare for their high-tech career fields. If they wish to have physical books, they can acquire them through the university’s interlibrary loan partnerships. The content is also out of the library’s hands: a $60,000 budget has been set for acquisitions within their e-book platform. With two clicks, the students purchase whichever e-books they want the library to have.

At this point, many of you have tablets and e-readers. You all use computers on a daily basis. Libraries everywhere are slimming down their physical collections in favor of digital resources. As Bob Dylan once mumbled, “The times they are a-changin’.” The medium is changing, but how are these changes affecting how we read?

Whether you think it’s a turn for the better or worse, e-readers and computer screens are altering our collective literacy. Reading digital text from a screen can not only cause the obvious eye strain, but can also inhibit our understanding of the material we are reading. When we read pages out of a physical book, our eyes naturally glide from left to right before moving down a line (at least in this part of the world). Now, imagine you’re reading a news article online. When you reach the end of the screen, what do you do to continue reading? You scroll down. This habit has trained our eyes to move vertically rather than horizontally when we’re looking at digital text, so we are skipping text to the left and right of where our eyes scan; we’re skimming documents, scanning for keywords, and passing through them more quickly. When we read in this way, we miss a lot of the information and nuance in the material. In fact, the average web reader only reads about 20% of the text on a webpage.

I’m certainly not here to demonize the digital age. Quite the contrary: like many Barry Law students, I came into existence around the same time as the World Wide Web. Going back to the dark age of less accessible information isn’t anything anyone wants! Despite the downsides to reading electronically, there are some positives: web-based reading is more cognitively challenging, exercising our brains. Digital materials make information more accessible and eco-friendly. We have so much right at our fingertips.The important thing is to adjust our reading habits so our understanding is unchanged (or even better, improved). With that, here are some tips for reading digital text:

  • Change your reading space. We often connect space with action, so if you find it hard to focus where you are, changing rooms may help.
  • Read more slowly. Spend 10 minutes or so of your daily reading time actively slowing your pace. Become aware of how fast you’re going and you’ll see a huge difference in how much information you retain.
  • Re-read what you don’t grasp. When you reach the end of a page and realize you don’t remember anything you just read, go back. Do not settle for vague understanding when the context is so important.
  • Avoid tunnel vision. Speaking of context, when we are skimming text, we find one keyword and stop reading after that. Make sure you recognize the context or you might entirely misinterpret the meaning — incredibly important for law students!
  • Read from e-readers or e-reading apps. If possible, read the text in the most “book-like” way you can. E-readers allow you to turn pages left to right rather than scrolling up and down and have excellent usability features. Sometimes you cannot avoid reading from websites, but reading as much as you can in an e-book format is best.
  • Write down your notes. Physically writing notes down will help you remember far more of what you read than typing them!
  • Pick up a book now and then. I’m not saying you should throw out your Kindle and call it a day, but it is good practice to intersperse print among your e-reading to train your eyes back to reading properly. Just like going to the gym, it is important to keep your eye muscles in shape.

You may have seen a few emails sent out regarding our upcoming LexisNexis Digital Library platform, or perhaps you read Shawn’s excellent post last week on how to use Serials Solutions (Check it out if you have not yet). We are moving more and more digital, although we believe print is important enough for us not to go bookless. It appears students agree: studies have shown that a majority of students prefer reading print. Embrace the change, but adapt! Make sure you are practicing good reading habits and you will ultimately be much more successful.

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