The Future of the Printed Textbook in A Digital Age

Printed books have defined the most critical moments and periods of much of human history. They are an integral part of our world, and we realize this for the most part.

The invention of the printing press in the days of Gutenberg in 1440facilitated this trend across the globe. Since then, printed books have dominated the world over. And most book addicts cherish the idea of maintaining publications on their own shelves at home, the office, and other cherished places.  

However, in today’s society, with the advent of technology, printed books are beginning to lose their place as a front-runner in the book industry.

The question that most people are asking today is, what is the future of printed books, and will printed books be a thing of the past? While it is true that printed books have lost their place as the first line of choice and will become obsolete with new technology, there are those who still believe that regardless of new trends in technology that have led to the transformation of printed books as we know it, books will not completely diminish but will survive modern technological trends that have transformed books as we know it.

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They hold the view thatbooks will still be sold, and the demand for physical hard, and soft cover books will always be there.

Others argue that printed books will continue to be with us since not all people can afford the devices that the e-books are and may not have access to internet to download the books.

Brian Goodman, a contributor at HuffPost, maintains that there are certain experiences that are found in a printed book considering the smell or even its feel, something that definitely cannot be found on mp3 or kindles. He, therefore, argues that this is one main reason that will never see the death of a printed book.

Michael Suarez, director of UVA’s Rare Book School maintains that, “despite lots of writing to the contrary, the book is not dead.” He argues that even though new media has changed the way we get information and tell stories, it’s just another in a long line of expressive media.

“The world of writing, or chirographic culture, didn’t replace orality,” print didn’t replace writing by hand, film didn’t stop radio, television didn’t stop the world of film”, he argues. In spite of his optimism about the future of printed books, he accepts the fact that the digital environment will change the structures of human knowledge, And  “It’s important to explore what’s being lost—as well as gained”, he maintains.

In spite of the above arguments to support the survival of printed books, the fact remains that digital innovations in the online world have resulted in the demise in the print industry. We have seen a sharp decline in printing books since the invention of the internet and computers.

 As a matter of fact, some people have written the obituary of the print industry. Even the Brittanica now has transition from publishing its iconic encyclopedia series from the print to the digital format.

A number of academic institutions are moving in this direction and exploring the use of e-textbooks and e-readers. These are textual documents that have been converted and “published” in an electronic format that display on eBook readers, devices, or computers using eBook software programmes. And, most of the devices have multiple uses.

Sometimes called smartbooks, e-book Readers,  orebooks, they are compact devices that are defined as a middle point between netbooks and smartphones.

They offer more capabilities than smartphones but are smaller than netbooks, making it easy to carry them anywhere. These innovations challenge the traditional textbook supply chain which is dependent on the school bookshop as the key book intermediary.

The devices may either be dedicated or have multifunctional purpose. Dedicated devices are made to perform a single or related tasks while multifunctional devices are made to perform multiple applications.

Amazon Kindle, Sony, Kobo, or nook are examples of dedicated devices while the iPad and Samsung Galaxy are good examples of multifunctional devices  The choice between a dedicated and multifunctional depends on the individual user and what features and applications one cherishes. Each has its pluses and minuses, and sold at varying prices, has various connectivity options, touchscreen or arrow navigation, screen clarity, different device quality and external interfaces. For example, some will allow you to borrow ebooks from a local library (assuming the book is available at the library) while others have no such functionality.

For example, Apple’s ipad is a digital media tool and a full notebook. Using the touch screen one  can use the Internet for research applications, listen to music, movies and games  There are a number of great apps for quick news and weather reports, many of which  can be customized to one’s taste. A standard iPod connector allows you to attach an external keyboard, route video to your HD TV or projector, and upload photos from external sources. Also, one can access all of the books on Amazon, just like a Kindle, but the display is much bigger. Information can be viewed in portrait or landscape.

In the classroom of today, students are using these devices to take notes and other purposes.

E-book readers offer several advantages over traditional textbooks. They are cheaper, shareable, lightweight, accessible and available around the clock, book stay in perfect condition and can be purchased remotely.

Additionally, e-books and tablet computers come in multimedia formats, with embedded audio and sometimes video features, and can be updated quickly. Furthermore, e-books minimizes demand on institutional facility. There is no need to put up a conventional building to house physical books. And, no need to acquire book counters and other resources to shelf books.

E-books cost almost nothing to make and distribute leading to the author and distributors making more money than print books. E-books can be bought almost anywhere in the world in any language and be received instantly without having to leave the house or even wait for it.

On the balance sheet,  when one thinks of the physical space and maintenance that is required for storing printed books, the growing personnel expense, and the growing budget for physical materials, it is more cost effective and less expensive, to invest in electronic textbooks and e-readers.

The digital age could lead to a complete phase out of printed media. Though books remain to be part of our history, they have no future in this digital age.

Knowledge has now become the key to wealth creation and the alleviation of poverty. Sixty percent of the wealth in the developed nations is created from technological knowledge. Since the wealth of the future will be created from this source of knowledge, we must invest in technological gadgets that will simplify the acquisition of knowledge or risk being left behind. And digital books have become the electronic and smarter version of any printed book.

Osei K. Darkwa, Ph.D.

Visiting Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago

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