Acts of Reading: when, how, and where do academics and their audiences read in the digital age?

How academics and their audiences read is a topic inextricably tied in with the future of the academic book. On the 24th September 2015, Professor Andrew Prescott, Dr Bronwen Thomas, and Professor Miri Rubin, chaired by Dr Sara Perry, discussed Acts of Reading as part of The British Library’s ‘Digital Conversations’ series of events. The event was held at The British Library and co-organised by The Academic Book of the Future project, and was prompted by a previous blog post on a related topic by Prof. Andrew Prescott.

The panel considered such questions as: Have acts of academic reading changed in recent years and are they still changing? What formats and devices are academics reading in and on, and how has this affected their research and writing? What is the future of academic reading, and what consequences will this have for the academic book? How have these changes impacted public consumption of academic research and might this portend for academia and the public in the future?

panel

The panel, as captured by a talented attendee! (© Lisamaria Laxholm: https://twitter.com/LLaxholm/status/647133130697121792)

Migratory reading

Dr Bronwen Thomas (Bournemouth University) began by outlining new opportunities that digital reading offers. She uses email and her university’s Intranet not only for collecting and aggregating links, but also for sharing them with her students. Reading becomes an act of community, of social connection and discussion, but the act of reading is also put off until the links themselves are clicked.

Digital reading offers a greater array of options for academics than hard-copy reading alone. “Even if a book is on my shelf, I am more likely to find a specific quote using a digital search, e.g. on Google Books.” But conversely, as Thomas highlights, citing Naomi Baron’s Words Onscreen (which she brought with her to the event – in hard copy format) people tend to do more re-reading in print. The reasons for this are various, although the main one for Thomas is that with physical books there are less likely to be Internet-related distractions, e.g. Twitter, Facebook, emails.

Some researchers have also argued that when reading a physical book there is a greater sense of the internal topography and structure of the book, with readers having more of a sense of themselves within the space of the book, as well as an awareness of external space, and a memory of the situations of reading: How much is left of the book? Where was I when I read this – on the bus, in my office, in the bath? Thomas asks: what counts as reading? Does it finish when you finish the book, or does an insight strike you 5 years later?

Thomas described herself as a migratory reader – migrating between different kinds of modalities and media. She referred to the “PowerPoint state of mind”, an argument often cited with reference to digital reading. It describes a fragmentary style of reading; dipping in and out of texts. This type of reading, Thomas suggests, can occur with both physical and digital texts, but is arguably being heightened by an increase in digital reading.

You can read Bronwen Thomas’ reflection on the event here: http://www.digitalreadingnetwork.com/academic-acts-of-reading-event-at-the-british-library/.

Academic ebooks: pdf hell?

Prof. Andrew Prescott (University of Glasgow, AHRC) reflected on the issue of reading in blog posts before (https://academicbookfuture.org/2015/03/19/my-acts-of-reading-andrew-prescott/) and after the Digital Conversations event at The British Library (http://digitalriffs.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/acts-of-reading-redux.html).

He agreed with Thomas’ assertion regarding the sense-memory of physical books, recalling “one cold Christmas in the 1960s”, when he had received a book as a gift and taken it back to his warm bed to read. Prescott went on to explain why and how he had gradually turned to digital reading, because of the great advantages it offers: ebook devices are lighter to carry than most hard-copy books; there is immediate access to content through downloads, and faster access to recently published books. He described himself as an “e-reading convert” but expressed dissatisfaction with the cost of academic books – he often still has to consult academic books in a library, rather than buying his own copy or e-version. “We need,” he suggests, “an academic text version of iPlayer.”

But has there been a transformation in reading practices, prompted by digital text? Prescott suggests that he doesn’t use his phone or device to do anything that he didn’t already do before: “Pleased as I am with ebooks, they are very very boring products.” Academic ebooks have not, he argues, capitalised on the advantages offered by digital technology for scholarly purposes. For example, it would be incredibly useful, in a history ebook for instance, to link directly to the primary source it refers to – a digitised version of a medieval document, a database of coins, a virtual tour of a long-gone city. Instead, ebooks tend to be glorified pdfs, and fairly flat. “My dystopian view of the future,’ says Prescott, “is that journals will consist of pdfs of journal articles.”

He then went on to say: “this is partly why I got into the Digital Humanities. I want to see ebooks that encourage me to read more deeply.”

Contextual deep reading

Prof. Miri Rubin (Queen Mary University of London) referred to the linguistic turn of the 1990s and the intertextuality of texts, and how this is a useful frame through which to consider academic reading: everything that humans produce and how we communicate with and understand each other is coded in texts. Rubin explained how we have become “supple, multi-skilled readers of text” by learning to deconstruct texts and to acknowledge the importance of context.

Nowadays scholars undertake a great deal of research via databases and searches. Often, we aren’t physically embedded in reading contexts – we are no longer immersed in journals in the stacks, or flicking through pages of physical text, accidentally discovering other information in the process. Rubin asks: Does this new reading change the way we understand content? She gives an example of a colleague who was researching the 1975 referendum. Due to copyright issues, he had to look through the original articles in physical newspapers, rather than viewing them in a digital context. Seeing them embedded in their original contexts, surrounded by the adverts and other articles on the page, the referendum articles took on new meanings and relevance. This is not something that can always be fully appreciated when using digitally-reproduced sources.

But, Rubin asks, what about reading poems, or cult or sacred literature? Are there inherent issues in reading the Lord’s Prayer, for instance, in a fragment? Rubin suggests the “notion that the reading act is not complete until it is complete.”

The academic book of the future: born digital?

Bronwen Thomas recently wrote a textbook that included links to relevant web pages, but she admitted that this is an “unsatisfactory way of trying to connect. The links will probably be dead by the time the book is published.” Seeking permissions for images can also discourage the kind of engaging, interactive e-text that Prescott would like to see. Despite this, Thomas thinks that the academic book of the future will be born digital – conceived as digital right from the outset, and including audio-visual content, links, and interactive features. Rubin added to this, suggesting that academic books of the future should be able to create a completely holistic reading experience for research and writing, for example when researching the Magnificat, the music itself could be playing in the background via an ebook.

On the other hand, Thomas suggests that the idea of the ‘digital native’ is a “mythology” – her students wanted paperbacks, because they thought e-reading devices to be ugly and like something their parents would use. “Books,” Thomas suggests, “are becoming retro, like vinyl, and going into bookshops is visually exciting, so books still hold charm and appeal.”

Measurement and evaluation

Sara Perry highlighted that there are strong links between the analogue and digital, and our ways of reading. Perhaps, she suggests, there are “larger concerns around the sharing economy: bureaucratic shackles, politics, longer-term engagement, personal safety, the divides between communities, surveillance and data analysis, and corporate control.” She questions how acts of reading are affected by the academic contexts in which we find ourselves, for example academics are subject to the REF, the impact agenda, metrics, etc. She cited one of her PhD students who has created video games to advance archaeological research, deploying them alongside the trowel or camera as a toolkit of the archaeologist. This student wants her examiners to literally play her thesis, rather than read it, but she is being forced to battle with the assumption that the PhD should be a monograph. Hence, the game will probably become an appendix at the end of her thesis, eliminating the potential and possibility of it.

AHRC funding encourages people to collaborate and create new book forms and potentially new reading experiences, but whether that is a REF-able output is another matter. Andrew Prescott explains that someone submitted a totem pole to the recent REF, and it was accepted. But whether this is encouraged within the frameworks of individual institutions and their structures is another question. He sees this it as a problem that we have in terms of the structure of knowledge, which “is now being driven more by Wikipedia than academia.”

Finally, there were some thought-provoking questions from the audience:

 

“I usually forage – for a particular quote or piece of information, but when I find a book I enjoy, I tend to buy it and read it for a different reason. What do you think of re-reading, and what academic books do you re-read and why?”

AP: Vivian Hunter-Galbraith’s book on using Public Records: it has haunted me since I was about 20. Now it is only available in a 1960s reprint. I constantly refer back to it. I would probably buy the ebook, like you said, to find a particular quote more quickly.

BT: For me re-reading is literary re-reading, like reading Jane Eyre 50 times. I re-read it every time I teach it. I don’t read ‘academic’ books in that way.

MR: I do the foraging and the researching but then if like it I buy it and re-read it more fully.

 

“If you could have access to everything EVER published on something the size of a matchbox, would you say yes?”

AP: It’s not something I would turn down if you offered it to me, but I would point out that this idea is a deception, because in the foreseeable future I don’t think it could exist. Take the example of Tristram Shandy: Sterne went to great effort and expense to insert a DIFFERENT piece of marbled paper in every single one of the first copies of this book. How would you recreate something like this?

BT: Absolutely not: It would be meaningless! Going back to the idea of foraging, part of the process of reading is the discovery, the creation of my own library of content – it would be a meaningless mess of everything.

MR: Yes, absolutely!

 

 

 

 

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