Recently I came across this assertion in the abstract for a talk about assistive technologies and widening access to educational resources:
“By their very nature, resources in digital format can be accessed more independently and personalised more easily.”
I’m not at all convinced that statement is true. A book can be accessed entirely independently, depending on where it is; if it’s in a library, you can go and get it out for free (though your access will be tracked to some extent); if it’s in a shop, you can buy it, and if you pay cash, nobody’s tracking your purchase (if you buy it second-hand you’re not even a sales statistic for the publisher). Once it’s yours, you can access it independently (provided your spouse doesn’t re-shelve it somewhere you can’t find it, your toddler doesn’t eat it, etc); you can take it with you anywhere you like, and it will remain just as accessible as it was at home; and you can personalise it in a number of ways: you can write on it, in pencil or pen; you can stick post-it notes or bookmarks in it, or (heresy!) turn down the corners of pages, to mark pages or passages of interest to you or others; you can stick a personalised bookplate, sticker or stamp in the front to mark it as your own (or simply write your name — and, incidentally, nobody will mind if your name contains hyphens, or it’s not the name you were given at birth); you can cover the book with a protective plastic cover, or fancy wrapping paper, or sticky-backed plastic, or anonymous brown paper; you can even cut it up and turn it into a new text or a new work of art (or both). Your ‘personalisation’ of it is limited only by your imagination.
Its digital equivalent, by comparison, can’t be accessed independently of some kind of reading device (over and above the body parts which you’d need to access a book) or printing device; often you have to go through some kind of intermediary (a website, a piece of software) to access it even then; your access may well be tracked, to a greater or lesser extent; and the extent to which you can ‘personalise’ it will be limited to the needs envisaged by the designers, developers, curators and so on who brought it to you.
Let’s just make a few things clear here: I love books — the physical objects and their content — but I don’t care about the real book smell, and I know from experience that you can actually read a Kindle in the bath. I don’t think real paper books are more real than real ebooks; I certainly don’t think digital resources are a lesser thing. I just don’t think their advantages are the ones being asserted here.