Unintended Consequences of Digital vs. Paper Books in Research

I love ebooks. The functionality of full text search, copy/paste/highlight/etc, social sharing, auto-generated highlights indexes, the space savings, all work together to make it a functionally superior format for reading an individual book, but I noticed something important last night while doing some research for a paper.

Improved atmosphere

Over the course of the evening, I amassed several large reference volumes around me, a stack of smaller books on hand for reference to quotes I wanted to pull out of them, and a notebook open to scratch page references and other thoughts as they came. I was sitting in front my my computer and huge monitor, but the keyboard had been shoved off to the side, out of the way. And then it hit me: I was in a state of near bliss.

My flow and train of thought was interrupted for a moment as I realized that I had not been this happy mining for information in a long time.

The physical books had produced an atmosphere in my study, one of tranquility, permanence, and a visual impression of depth of information locked away in the thousands of pages in the tomes littering my desk.

Increased depth and breadth of thought

A little later I realized something else that was working for me. In the course of flipping through pages, referencing indices and tables of contents for a specific topic, I found myself stopping at way points and reading tangential-but-related information that ended up aiding my overall thought.

Initially I was frustrated at the lack of full text search and the additional time necessary to find the information, but once I had committed the appropriate amount of time to study, that lack of search became a boon to the project.

I would not have seen the breadth of information and diversity of thought had I simply entered the desired phrase into a search engine to pinpoint the exact reference I wanted.

Had I been on the Internet doing the research there would have been tangential waypoints, but it would have been Facebook, Twitter, and E-mail, or the occasional Geocities page of a crazed lunatic posing as a subject matter expert.

Balance in all things

I believe there is balance to be reached here. Electronic media is certainly a powerful tool, and in some subject areas, might be the preferred means. Taking the time to do it the “old fashioned” way, however, can yield greater depth of thought, better discipline, a sharper mind, and (for me) a general increase in the joy of study.

What was I studying?

For the curious, I was practicing a bit of my “other” vocation: theology. I was specifically compiling some thoughts that have been brewing on the use of formal liturgy as a structure for planning a “non-liturgical”, “alternative/contemporary”, corporate worship service. The large “tomes” included: (yes, those are affiliate links of various flavors)

Some of the smaller books referenced (to name a few):

I did reference several articles on the topic on the Web and I was using Logos Bible software for some language work.


One response to “Unintended Consequences of Digital vs. Paper Books in Research”

  1. Chris Trampel Avatar
    Chris Trampel

    I recently bought Culture Making in Kindle format. I don't have a Kindle so I had to use the PC version of the software. You're right, the copy/paste and search features were really helpful. The eyestrain from reading on a screen with a refresh rate is a deal-breaker for me. After skimming the second half of the book on my PC my eyes were so tired they were twitching!

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