Sometimes lower-tech is better-tech

It has always amazed us that in spite of the continual promise for a "paperless office" [as described in the "Future of the Written Word" special issue, Spring 1998], the printed word has not vanished because it remains, for many purposes, simply a superior technology. Let's compare:

Ergonomics. Turning pages in a book is a pretty low-dexterity operation compared to manipulating a mouse, buttons, scroll bars, and the like.

Contrast and luminance. The printed page is easy to read because it has a large reflective display with high contrast. On a computer screen, "black" is never quite so black, "white" never quite so white, which is why you can't read a computer in bright sunlight.

Resolution. The number of pixels on a printed page is far greater than on any computer monitor, which results both in lower eyestrain and higher data density. For example, a newspaper column inch would be impossible to duplicate on most computer screens without making it either much larger or much harder to read.

Weight and portability. Books weigh several ounces compared to most laptops, which generally weigh eight or more pounds.

Durability. Hit your friend over the head with a book. Now ask him to hit you over the head with his laptop. Or try spilling a cup of coffee onto each. There is little question that the book is far more rugged.

Duration. Read a book, close it, leave it on a shelf. You can always go back to it and verify what you read. Electronic data, particularly on the Internet, are ephemeral and prone to unexpected editing or complete disappearance.

Power consumption. Need we say more?

Richard C. Hsu, Esq.
Cyrano Sciences Inc.
Pasadena, Calif.

William E. Mitchell
Whitehorse Development, LLC
Palo Alto, Calif.

Editor's note: Mr. Hsu and Mr. Mitchell elaborated on these points in greater detail in "Books Have Endured for a Reason," New York Times, May 25, 1997, section 3 (Money & Business), p. 1.

Online books: Good for sales

As is always the case with an evolution/revolution, the true picture takes time to appear ["The Future of the Written Word," Spring 1998]. Such it is with the role of online full-text materials in the academic setting. Mary Summerfield's description of Columbia's efforts to test the waters and measure success through its Online Books Evaluation Project, and its other computer-based services ["Will online books have a role in our lives?"] omits mention of the experience of others. For example, the National Academy Press released 1,700 of its books in full text to the web, allowing free access. The result: Sales went up 17 percent the next year. In a smiilar project, MIT Press mounted six full-text books on its web site, and sales of these titles doubled over expected paper-only sales.

What does this mean? Perhaps nothing more than that reading a good book online is nearly impossible, so it's better to buy it, and finding it online is a good marketing ploy. Just as the radio was not "killed" by the success of television, books may not be done in by the new electronic media but may successfully and synergistically co-exist for decades.

Pat Molholt, Ph.D.
Assistant Vice President and Associate Dean for Scholarly Resources
Columbia Health Sciences

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