What we don't know about online reading

Young Americans are doing less “voluntary reading” in the traditional sense, but they’re spending lots of time reading online. Writing on Britannica Blog, Dana Gioa of the National Endowment for the Arts suspects that people read differently online, but says we don’t understand the differences.

Early in our research, we spoke to an Internet expert employed by a major corporation who said that the company’s research showed that people rarely read more than about 20 consecutive words of text on the Internet.

However, the NEH wasn’t allowed to see the study.

If this assumption proves correct, then Web text is being experienced primarily as information and entertainment, and not as a format conducive to sustained engagement with writings of greater length. If this is the case, then future prospects for vocabulary growth, contextual learning, and memory retention — not to speak of spelling, grammar, and syntax — are bleak.

Also on Britannica, James Evans writes that online searching is more efficient but “may also accelerate consensus and narrow the range of findings and ideas grappled with by scholars.”

Ironically, my research suggests that one of the chief values of print library research is its poor indexing. Poor indexing — indexing by titles and authors, primarily within journals —likely had the unintended consequence of actually helping the integration of science and scholarship. By drawing researchers into a wider array of articles, print browsing and perusal may have facilitated broader comparisons and scholarship.

Is there more opportunity for serendipity in a library than in a Google search?

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  1. I think there is more opportunity for serendipity in a library, at least from what I’ve found while doing research projects. I usually use Google once I know a decent amount about my topic and am just looking for one or two specific pieces of information or looking to see if there are web sites published by organizations relating to my research. Other than that, I like to use the Library of Congress subject search feature on my library’s web site. I find one book that I know is relevant, and I use the search terms associated with it to find other books. Then I take the search terms from those and do it again, and so on until I am fairly certain I have enough resources and have adequately covered as many aspects of my topic as possible. (I make no claims to have covered EVERYTHING pertaining to a topic, as there is usually something which eludes me.) I also find the books I need and look at the books next to them. Since most libraries are organized by topic, this is an incredibly fast way to find lots of material (provided one is familiar with the basic workings of the Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress system – they’re the most used in the US).

  2. I think it’s primarily a technical issue.

    Reading much off a CRT is painful. An LCD is better but still not optimal. Neither one’s as good as printed text yet.

    That may change with the advent of e-ink or other, more advanced display technologies but currently it’s neither convenient nor particularly pleasant to read off a monitor.

  3. wahoofive says:

    Are you saying you never get unexpected results from a Google search? You are awesome!