Thursday, October 23, 2014

Digital publishing should play to digital’s strengths

A statement by Jean Gralley in “Liftoff: When Books Leave the Page” (Horn Book Magazine, Jan/Feb 2006) really stood out for me this week in my readings for Children’s Literature.

“It’s ridiculous to make a monitor do what paper does better. But the problem is not that things have gone too far but that they haven’t gone far enough. Let digital be digital. Let the digital medium create stories that can’t be told as well on paper -- or told on paper at all.”

From attempting to read the “digital supplements” to a magazine subscription, I could relate wholeheartedly. These “digital supplements” are produced with graphic-heavy layouts, their text arranged in columns that sprawl across two-page spreads.

They’re near-impossible to read because the web-based reader’s “default” view, of a two-page spread, renders the type too small. I have to repeatedly zoom in to be able to read the text, only to lose that preference the moment I advance the file to the next “two-page spread.” I also have to scroll up and down to read the multiple columns.

In order to successfully read the magazine’s “digital supplement,” I ultimately end up downloading the file and printing it out on paper.

I wholeheartedly agree that digital publishers should “Let digital be digital.” Stop trying to mimic paper and instead produce digital content in a way that plays to digital’s strengths:

  • Links that give the reader access to supplemental, enriching materials.
  • Type size and contrast settings that can be customized.
  • Text-to-speech adaptive technology that reads the book or magazine aloud to readers with print disabilities.
  • Clean, simple layouts that are quick to load and easy to navigate.

(As an aside, I think the way Gralley packages her article is not the best representation of digital’s positive qualities. Instead of publishing the article as text on her website, she chose to use an animated slideshow that presents pictures of text, giving it the resolution and clarity of a bad photocopy. I have misgivings that adaptive screen readers will find nothing that registers here, again because what Gralley displays is a picture of text. She also uses a lot of animation that I find gratuitous and distracting.)

At this point, I unabashedly prefer print. It is so much more immediately accessible. A mass-market paperback might cost $7.99, even less if purchased used. An e-Book might cost $9.99, but how much did the reader first have to invest in a device that can read the file?

I believe that eBooks and other digital resources have a place in our classrooms and libraries, but making them available is so much more complex than simply purchasing books.

For one thing, what the school or library might purchase is a license to use the file. And that license may be subject to renewal after a designated number of uses.

And lest some students be left behind on the wrong side of the digital divide, schools must also make reading devices available and determine their procedure for use.

All the while, the paperback I mentioned is unquestionably mine. No publisher will make me re-negotiate its use after I’ve read it so many times. And each print book is self-contained as its own content delivery system.

I don’t have to worry about compatibility of a file with my particular brand of eReader. Best of all, even after the battery runs out and the eReader needs to recharge, I’ll still be able to read my paperback.

Composed for Cuesta College’s ECE 234, Children’s Literature

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