Books vs the Web

So yesterday I woke up to find a small (and perfectly pleasant) discussion happening on Twitter around the pros and cons of books versus the web. The topic had been kickstarted by Darren Naish (TetZoo) with this question:

I would appreciate some opinions. Which do you think has more 'value', more 'worth' and longevity for our collective knowledge: online articles (like, at a blog) or physical published printed literature (like, in a book)?

Something about the tweet immediately resonated, so I replied. Then replied again. And again. Then I had a shower, continued thinking about it, and went back for one more[1]. It clearly struck a nerve 🙄

Part of that, I think, is the dichotomy between longevity and value. I find it hard to argue with the numerous other people who pointed out that the web is much more ephemeral than a book. Darren has personally been impacted by that several times, with his own long-running blog having switched providers only to find several years of articles trapped behind paywalls or significantly modified from their original published state. Even with organisations like the Wayback Machine, websites go offline, data can be corrupted, and link rot is a real issue. Books, on the other hand, simply exist. Physical permanence is a big win when you're considering archival potential, after all!

But just because knowledge is preserved doesn't necessarily mean it's useful. When you're considering collective knowledge (as Darren is), I think books rapidly get outpaced by the web, despite the risks that the format presents. At the end of the day, information is only useful to a person if it's available and accessible. Books, like any physical object, are distinctly limited in terms of both availability and accessibility. In order to read a book, you have to be able to get to it. In order to achieve that, you need to either buy the book yourself or borrow the book long enough to read it.

In the first scenario, simply being able to afford the book is a significant enough barrier, but you also need to live somewhere that the book is published or sold and be able to buy it during the period that it's available for sale. I'm lucky enough to live in a developed nation with an open market and personally have a substantial disposable income, so if I want to buy a book I often can. But even for me a lot of information is out of bounds due to that last hurdle: it's out of print and largely unavailable on a second-hand market. Unfortunately, capitalism doesn't prioritise knowledge based on academic worth either, so often books that are considered the source on a given subject are both expensive and only available in short runs. Miss that small window and you're stuck hoping for a re-release[2].

Okay, but you can still borrow the book. We're incredibly fortunate to live in an age where institutions like libraries and universities are both fairly plentiful and globally distributed enough to be a valid resource for a lot of people. But, of course, there are a lot of books. The chances of your local library having the exact one you're after are slim unless you live in a major city (and again, probably in a developed nation). Even at university, my experience was often one of months-long waiting lists for key textbooks and I ended up going online for most of the articles I needed as the library didn't have them. And that's still assuming you can access a library. Whilst the web still has barriers to access that shouldn't be forgotten or ignored, I'd say the barriers inherent to books are just much higher for most of the world. After all, if you have an internet connection, you can reach a website[3].

And then there are the benefits of a dynamic medium like the web. Not only is the information much more easily accessed, but it can also be consumed in a variety of ways. Need to translate text never published in your native language? There are services that can run in the browser and auto-translate websites in real-time, plus sites can have internationalisation baked in. Struggle to read text? Screen readers can convert a website to audio much more easily than books, whilst digital formats can be scaled, recoloured, spaced, font-edited etc. to meet the user's personal requirements. The ability to remix digital content into different formats opens it up to a much wider array of access needs.

On top of which, websites can be indexed, searched, tagged, cross-linked, and hyperlinked[4]. In huge academic tomes, trying to find half-remembered pieces of information leaves you at the mercy of indices and reference pages; online you can just type into an input box[5]. That also makes the information they contain more easily shared, linked to, or even archived to personal data stores, like this site's notes section. Again, this further enhances accessibility and gets that information to more people, more easily.

Books are also left constrained to page structures, chapter divisions, and static images. Online, you can present information in whatever structure best fits it, linking between sections as much as desired, and providing data dynamically using videos, audio, animations, or interactive elements. The possibilities for engagement with content are much higher on a website simply because it's a dynamic medium[6]. Plus, that content can be kept up-to-date. Once a book is published, the content is fixed, but a website can be edited, updated, and extended as required[7].

Of course, the best solution is probably a combination of book and website. In an ideal world, you would print for longevity, distribute to archival systems like universities and libraries, then make the knowledge as widely available as possible online. Unfortunately, the economics of publishing make that second step problematic. Books are expensive to create, expensive to produce, and expensive to market. Keeping them scarce ensures a return on that financial investment and makes the entire industry possible in the first place. That said, I think a lot of people incorrectly conflate "online" with "free". For years, that's been a fair assumption, but I think increasingly we're realising as a society that this isn't a sustainable model.

Don't get me wrong, I'll always promote giving knowledge away for free, but I also think that authors and researchers should financially benefit from their work. Either a "freemium" model or a paywall feels like a solid solution to the economics of publishing online. For a standard book, providing a digital equivalent in the form of a website (not just an eBook or – shudders – PDF 😱) that has a one-off cost for access seems perfectly fair. Perhaps digital access could be a little cheaper (considering that it costs a little less to produce digital content) and included with a physical purchase, in a similar way to how a lot of the music industry deals with vinyl purchases these days. Or, for larger projects (think encyclopedias or series of books), a recurring monthly subscription that grants access for the duration of payments would solve a lot of access issues whilst still enabling financial return; for successful projects, that could even provide greater returns than a book ever would[8].

Oh and this isn't just a fanciful thought experiment, either. Publishers like A Book Apart have shown that this book-plus-website model can work. Several of their books were released in physical and eBook formats initially (sometimes where the eBook is also a paywalled website with offline support, from what I understand), then later released as free websites (like HTML5 for Web Designers), even if second editions have since come out physically. There are also solo books that have only ever been websites, like Resilient Web Design (you'll notice the same author as HTML5; eBook versions are also available) or books that have been re-formatted to use the web's strengths like this brilliant take on A Scandal in Bohemia, the Sherlock Holmes novel.

Which is all to say that I was a little disheartened to see how many people in that original Twitter thread were arguing that books are better than online content, always. I don't think either are strictly "better", but I think writing off the web in favour of print media only makes information less accessible, less available, and therefore less useful in the long run. If you're wanting to advance our collective knowledge, I'd argue to bet on the web.

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  • <p>I love books. I have a huge collection of them and I routinely add to it. But when it comes to the topic of spreading knowledge and information, I think the web wins. It may not be as nice to use, but it is more accessible, and that means it's more valuable.</p>
  • Murray Adcock.
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