What Does it Mean to Read? (RA 1/2; 3/3)

I saw a presentation a few years ago by Ann Cahill of Elon University. It was a presentation at a teaching and learning conference, the type of thing I’ve sat in 100s of time and given enough times I can no longer count. But her presentation really resonated with me and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it sense then.

Dr. Cahill is a philosophy professor. In another universe I might have been her colleague. And though I can’t remember the official reason for the presentation, what I took from it is that different disciplines read differently.

We know that’s true of writing: obviously so. One writes differently for a blog vs. a science lab vs. a humanities paper. Even different disciplines within a larger category write differently (history vs. philosophy vs. english, for example). But for some reason I had not registered it for reading.

I have two main approaches to reading. One is my version of speed reading (which I now realize is probably just “reading”) and one is what I thought of as reading (which Cahill helped me recognize as “philosophical reading”). And now I realize I would probably benefit from other flavors like “nonfiction reading” or “reading in order to do scholarship vs. reading for learning.”

The way Cahill helped the audience understand what philosophical reading is was by showing a few videos. She had a selection of text and she had the student read it out loud, pausing to share out loud what they were thinking as they read, and then continuing on. The students read the paragraph with maybe two or five stops where they made commentary like “that’s funny” or “I didn’t expect that!” Then she showed a video of her, reading the text herself. She started by reading the author’s name, the speculating on why it seemed familiar. She commented on why one might select a passage of a work before she got started. The piece began with an ellipses, so she wondered aloud what was cut and why. Her video, up until this point, took longer than the undergraduates reading the piece in its entirety. Then she continued to have something to say for about every five words of the piece. The videos were useful because she could use that to help students learn what it is to read in a philosophy class, but it was also enlightening for most of the conference attendees as well. Some didn’t know you could read like that. I had no idea most people didn’t read like that.

And that’s because reading is intensely private. You can’t hear how someone reads. “To read out loud” has a specific meaning, and it’s generally to read what is literally on the page with no further commentary. I wonder what the people who taught me to read had going on in their mind as they taught me. I wonder if this way of reading is inborn or learned. (A whole research agenda in and of itself there…)

So since then I’ve worked on this idea that reading might be a big like exercising. Running, weigh lifting, bike riding are all kinds of exercise. However, they all require different types of footwear. Reading might be more of an umbrella activity, with different flavors within. Reading fiction, scholarly articles, and disciplinary non fiction might be better in different environments.

For example: at the moment, my preferred pleasure reading is on my Nook. It’s small and light, it’s eink, I can read in the dark without bothering John, the books sync with my phone. Just like the best camera is the one that’s with you, this is my best book because it’s always with me. My iPad is great for reading web content. I mostly pull it down on instapaper, and then find it to be extremely readable but connected enough to then bookmark things or share them on social media. I like the idea of reading scholarly articles on my iPad, but so far I find it easier on my laptop. The keyboard is there for annotation, I understand how to deal with files more intuitively, there’s much more storage space. For me that’s simpler. I still like paper books for my most theoretical reading. If it’s philosophical in nature, and I’m going to do the extremely intentional reading described above, I just can’t beat paper for that experience. I can do it for short stints on my laptop (which is another reason articles work well for me there), but not really in any sustained way on the iPad.

I tend to do my “speed reading” on the Nook or iPad, and my “reading” on the laptop or a paper book. I’m not sure if comprehension factors into that–another area worthy of study–though I can say I remember plenty from my engaging reading on the Nook.

My three year old specifies books by format. Sometimes he wants a “paper” book, sometimes an “iPad” one, and sometimes he requests a “phone book.” His format requests seem to be more about time of day and mood than anything. Perhaps content since we don’t duplicate between digital and paper as well.

And all of this before I even got to what I thought the main point of this post was going to be: that ebook publishers make it easier and harder to read their books. This is an entire usability endeavor all unto itself. The different platforms all have different functionality and ways of doing things and in some cases can make it a challenge to do deep reading. How does that impact scholarship? And is that trade off dangerous, or actually okay given the benefits of access to more outlined in the previous post?

Whither the eBooks? (RA 1/2; 2/3)

Related to my interest in finding physical books, as you might guess, is finding electronic ones. And in this area there are several things to consider: organizational practices, user understandings, and usability.

Organizational Practices

How do we think of electronic books? Where are they located in our systems? Do we put them in the catalog so that there is one interface that easily searches all monographs? Do we leave them out and the catalog only represents the physical collection? Do we put them in the eresources area? Do users know it’s eresources or do they assume eresources are all journals? We, of course, have to make decisions based on the limitations of resources available to us, so how do we include usability and user expectations in the process? How do we think about marketing and communication in light of these decisions?

For example, in another ebook issue, as we embrace extremely logical Demand Driven Acquisitions approaches to book buying, something that only really makes sense in an electronic medium, what happens to users’ perceptions of books? One department I worked with in the past was genuinely upset about DDA without knowing DDA was the root of their concern. They told me that our collections had gotten worse and they didn’t know why. They shared that in the past they were able to look up books in the catalog and then stroll over to the library to pick them up. But once we started using DDA they only found ebook records. They didn’t know what DDA was, and I hadn’t known enough about their research processes to know how they would interpret DDA in the corse of their scholarly work. From their point of view, the library all of a sudden had hundreds of ebooks (that we would have never purchased in print due to limited resources). We had many more books to wade through and they had the impression we had fewer paper ones. The collection felt worse to them even though they actually had access to far more information. And that was not on the department. That was on the library. (Specifically, that’s on the communication process, which is hugely systemic. It’s part knowing what research looks like in different disciplines, knowing specific faculty members’ approaches, the mass communication to campus, the individualized liaison approach, etc. We solved this with several individual meetings as well as a departmental meeting with the liaison–yours truly.)

User Understanding

Which leads, cleanly, into what our users understand. The following all color your understanding of the role of ebooks, why the library has them, and how you go about finding them:

  • Disciplinary differences in reading
  • Disciplinary differences in the need to know the most current research
  • The varying platforms ebooks are published in (from the reader friendly Kindle/Nook/iBook formats to the more research focused EBL/ebrary variety)
  • Author/publisher processes for determining if something is offered electronically and on what platform
  • The owning vs. leasing arrangements that are necessitated in an e-enviornment (rather than the clear cut owning in a physical one)
  • The increase of knowledge production that is not matched by an increase in materials budgets (which is related to the DDA discussion)
  • The costs of keeping books on the shelf that might never have circulated (and the speculative nature of building a physical collection)
  • The varying user expectations that we’re attempting to balance, from print only to electronic only preferences
  • That ebooks are in fact books, but they are also electronic resources, and different libraries in different communities might have different approaches for how to make them findable
  • That serendipity is a beloved experience by many library users (and librarians!) so though ebooks don’t fit on the shelves with our physical ones, libraries are still working on enabling this type of serendipity
Anyone’s prior experiences will color how they interpret a change. And anyone’s well developed systems of research will be impacted (and therefore impact the perception of) any change as well. It’s supremely necessary to know about our users and think about the user experience in every aspect of library service, and ebook provision is certainly one of those. Among the many types of anthropological research that can help us think about that is usability.


I think a good place to start when thinking about usability is what is it that we know users want to do that we can examine. Another nice place to start is what do users want to do that we don’t know about–but that’s really more something to tease out in conversations rather than a usability study.

With ebooks, I break it down by campus users (since our community beyond the userID will have to come to campus to be able to use these resources). So I think in terns of (a) researcher/faculty member and (b) assignment/student.

A researcher (hopefully!) starts out understanding the difference between a book and an article. They have a sense of what they can expect in a book, and therefore know that a book is what they’re looking for. So a usability study could include questions about how they would find a book on a given topic, how they would find all the books the library provides on a given subject, and can they find a specific book that exists only in an eformat. Researchers, at least in 2013, have the experience of using physical analogs for the electronic options available to them today, which contextualizes their thinking for the electronic media they come across in the research process. It also creates a structure in which they expect ebooks and e-articles to act like the physical media they shaped their understanding of research around.

Someone working on an assignment will not necessarily understand that a book is different than an article, or if they do grasp that, it’s often unlikely (with undergraduate students) that they can articulate what makes a chapter in a book different from an article. Already, for these users, format can be a confusing aspect of the search. Why would you specifically be looking for a book (or article)? What does it matter if it’s print or electronic? What’s the difference between (whatever you call your) catalog and (whatever you call your) discovery service? Why would you chose one over the other? If I were doing a usability study with students today, I’m certain I would either focus on the core tasks we know are being requested in classes or on specific new services I wanted to be sure our students would know. ebooks may or may not be part of that. But if I wanted to focus on ebooks, I’d probably start with an informational interview teasing out some of the questions above, and then seeing if they could identify known items (as in, the bibliography a professor gives them) and if they know what to do when they come across a record for an electronic book. That’s a low bar, but extremely useful to understand.


So back to the matter at hand: contrasted with the epistemological structures that enable (or disable) finding physical books, finding ebooks is partially rooted in the organization of material by the library, but is also rooted in a user’s understanding of ebooks vs. books as well as the usability of the interfaces we provide. Also worthy of exploration, but a big bigger and more unwieldy of a topic. Whereas the limits and benefits of a linear classification system might be able to be explored primarily with epistemological texts (and supplemented by user studies), clearly ebook require a lot more research with individuals, and the research would need to be duplicated at different libraries as systems are often custom designed for each community.

And all that is found within this post might be moot depending on the next research agenda post… which should be up in about a week.