‘The screen is all surface’, says Eleanor Catton, an author I respect very much, both for her books and for her politics. Catton compares printed matter vs digital matter to watching TV sports vs playing sports:

[S]itting on the couch, watching a game of rugby, bears as little relation to actually playing the game as clicking through websites does to reading a book.

Why? Why is this author saying these things about digital resources, I wonder aloud, after which the NZ Book Council tweets that Catton’s quote is in response to impending funding cuts to libraries in my home country of New Zealand.

This is all so very unfortunate because:

1. There are still schools in New Zealand relying on dial-up Internet. And I can tell you for a fact that no matter where you are in NZ, Internet speed is no great shakes. A well-stocked library is still the most reliable source of information.

2. The money saved by pushing schools towards ‘curated digital resources’ is only one year’s salary for the top-earning MP, as someone pointed out.

3. Many teachers (and their students) are still most comfortable with hard materials, especially in schools where the technology is outdated.

4. It’s difficult enough to get students using printed matter when conducting their research — still a necessary skill since not everything is available online. NCEA English seems to have evolved a lot since I taught it in New Zealand — there used to be a dedicated ‘Research’ standard, in which students were required  to locate resources from a variety of different sources (as opposed to copy and pasting everything from Wikipedia, which is the pragmatic but unwise thing to do). Students still need to learn that printed non-fiction is an excellent supplement — if not an excellent primary source — in their research.

5. Eleanor Catton is right that any library funding cuts increase the disparity between the rich and poor, with the rich having more access to digital resources. (Is this, in effect, an acknowledgment that digital resources are actually useful, and not ‘all surface’ at all?)

 

Library funding cuts are also unfortunate for those of us creating digital matter.

‘A book has dimension. It is a doorway.’

Subtext reading: ‘a digital resource is lacking in dimension. It is a barrier.’

 

We see no hierarchy when it comes to digitised and printed material. One complements the other. Printed materials have their advantages, especially to the readily distracted, or to the book owner who likes to write marginalia. On the other hand, you can’t hit Ctrl+F on a printed book to find every instance of that phrase you recall. A printed book can’t keep all your highlights in one place; once you highlight a printed book that’s it. You can’t ‘unhighlight’ it. Digital matter, too, has its advantages, not least instant availability to those with the technology, and perhaps this does need to be said.

This should not be a digital versus print war. Still, these unwise funding cuts to libraries tend to set off some of our most respected voices in the world of literature. No, the screen is not ‘all surface’ — sure, you can’t turn the pages, but the metaphor isn’t sound. The analogy between TV sport and digital books is surprisingly weak given the writing ability of Eleanor Catton, a master of figurative language.

Funding cuts to school libraries are what they are: A terrible idea.

Schools everywhere should not be pushed prematurely into digital-land. Any student or teacher who wants to borrow a book from The NZ National Library should have the right to do so, and the money should be there. Likewise, schools everywhere should have access to all sorts of international digital content — via perfectly adequate screens — should they want it, and the money should be there, too. Students should be taught the different kinds of reading (skimming, scanning, synthesising — and I believe they are), and taught which type of reading is best suited for different purposes. Students should be encouraged to check a range of different resources when conducting research, whether printed on paper or kept in a digital online archive.