E-book sales skyrocketed in 2007 when Amazon unveiled the Kindle. Some said the demise of paper books was imminent. After a few years, however, e-book sales declined as the novelty wore off and consumers discovered e-books weren’t always cheaper than print books. It wasn’t until May of 2017 that e-books once again saw a small uptick—the first in two years. All of the up, down, and back up again trends got me thinking. When reading a book, do we retain more information if we read it as an e-book or a print book?
Let’s forget for a moment the debates. Will e-books replace print books? Right now, they co-exist. Are e-books better for the environment than paper books? There are, in fact, ways to recycle both. Which format is more convenient? It depends on the book, the circumstance and a reader’s personal preference. If you regularly peruse the DIYMFA.com reading columns, you’ll recall that we encourage reading in all formats. For instance, I always have a print book on my nightstand, an audiobook in my car and an e-book on my phone. Reading, in whatever form, is better than not reading at all.
When it comes to retention, the answers are mixed and difficult to generalize. First off, there have been no large, long-term studies comparing e-book retention to print retention. The studies that have been conducted focused on small groups of particular populations. Two of the endless examples I could give you are (1) pharmacists in training reading a pharmacy textbook (as opposed to the general public reading a novel) or (2) one class in one middle school (as opposed to multiple classes in multiple middle schools, each with unique socio-economic characteristics). I also ran across studies that were conducted by e-book delivery companies rather than an independent team of academic researchers.
Secondly, books and devices vary from study to study. The print books given to study participants are mostly paperbacks, textbooks, or children’s picture books. However, there is an even wider variation when it comes to the types of e-books used in experiments. Some researchers handed their subjects tablets to read books in electronic form. Other studies used personal computers with plain text files, dedicated e-readers, interactive apps, PDF files, flash drives, etc. Thus, there is no way to compare results across studies (a meta-study) because of differences like screen size, manufacturer, app, program, operating system and brightness.
With the above cautions in mind, here are some of the more interesting and recent findings I found:
- Norwegian tenth graders who read from a paperback book scored higher on post-reading questions than another group that read the same selection on computers. This finding held true whether the piece was informational or narrative in form. In the study, the researchers suggest a lack of “spatiotemporal markers” in the electronic version as a possible explanation. Physical book readers can often mentally flip back to specific information (i.e. “I remember it was at the bottom of the page on the left-hand side.”). Whereas, reading online tends to involve unbroken strings of text and lots of scrolling.
- In an experiment called “Curling up With a Good E-Book,” British researchers found no difference in recall whether mothers and children read print books or e-books together. They did, however, observe more interaction, warmth, and a closer posture among the pairs when reading paper books.
- A few studies touted the advantages of e-books for those with disabilities or learning impairments. For example, most students with dyslexia performed worse when reading a print book. Reading the same book on an iPod touch kept children more engaged and improved word decoding and comprehension. The study designers theorized the smaller screen resulted in less words for the brain to interpret at one time.
- In a 2014 presentation to the International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature (IGEL), a team found that adults who read a mystery in paper form had superior retention of the story’s chronology compared to those who enjoyed the story on a Kindle. This experiment was led by Anne Mangen, an expert in the print versus electronic reading debate, and an author of the previously mentioned Norwegian study.
- High school students using a tablet read faster but had comprehension scores equal to those obtained when reading from paper. Nicknamed the “iPad® vs. paper” study, these South African students used the ibooks app to read digitally. It is unknown if the results would be the same for older readers.
- Psychologist Kate Garland discussed her results in an interview for TIME.com entitled “Do E-Books Make It Harder to Remember What You Just Read?” She said her subjects had to read electronic information more times before understanding it. Yet, in the end, they retained the material equally as well as those who had read the same information in print books.
The take-away for readers is, again, to keep reading in whatever form you prefer. The definitive study has yet to be conducted. However, if you are in the middle of an e-book and can’t master key points, you might experiment with the paper version to see if there’s any improvement. If you are a print reader with any type of disability or learning impairment, e-books could be the ticket to clearer recall.
For writers, we would do well to remember that our output will be read digitally. Adding physical markers such as section breaks, or bullet points could make our work unforgettable. And isn’t that what we all want?
Terri Frank is a professional librarian and holds a Master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Michigan. When she’s not working in a library, she’s probably visiting a library with her husband and two kids. Her current writing projects include a novel about a tuberculosis sanitorium.