Print or screen?

June 11, 2015

One of the things about the world of books that has changed faster than anything, I think, is the rapid obsolescence of reference books of almost all kinds. I have no idea why every year we have a new phone directory and yellow pages delivered: they are never opened, and I don’t understand why we haven’t introduced the German system, whereby you take an old one to exchange for a new one if you want it, ensuring no unnecessary waste, and certain recycling. But that was the first example that sprang to mind…

With access to the internet, looking for information has been transformed over the last decade. I use the OED online, free, via my local library, when I need a definition. Similarly, I use word reference, or my.dict for translations for French, German or Spanish words. Paper dictionaries get very little use, since, while I’m reading my tablet is next to me, far lighter than the alternative. I turn to a ‘real’ dictionary when I’m wrestling with a crossword and need to search for words, or if the online French dictionary lacks the words I need.

Encyclopaedias that I used to consult regularly now gather dust or have gone to charity shops. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, which used to be the gold standard, has, for me, paled into insignificance alongside wikipedia, which scores by virtue not only of its incredible scope, but also for its numerous further references and links.

I like to have my Bach reference books alongside me as I listen to the cantatas, because they are easier to use and cross-reference on paper than on a tablet, even though there are now some stunningly comprehensive websites out there.

But I suppose my major exception to the world of internet reference is with maps and atlases: I still rely on my vast and unwieldy Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World, and will probably replace it with another print copy when it is outdated, and I also have some map sheets of particular areas: the small area visible on a laptop or tablet screen just doesn’t lend itself to the kind of things I need from a map, although sometimes Google Earth is a useful complement.

Habits are clearly changing very rapidly; I’ve heard report that school students say that they don’t need to learn facts and information because they can look them up instantly; I like that I can have access to the latest information rather than relying on a possibly out-of-date book. I do think it’s important to discriminate, though – some texts obviously go out of date much more rapidly than others, and I also find that there are times when paper is much more user-friendly than screen text, for instance when I’m flipping back from page to page in a book, with my thumb in one place, or quickly scanning an index or table of contents and grazing a section.

I think all this is wonderful; my bookshelves are rather lighter than they might otherwise be (and I can justify some of the gadgets I’ve acquired). And, because so much information is at my fingertips, I can wander much more widely through the world of knowledge than I ever could before, and I have come across wonders that I might otherwise never have known the existence of.


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