Some time ago I wrote a post asking the question of whether paper books would go the way of the dinosaur (see Paper or e-Book? for details). I recently came across another question, one of whether books will exist at all in the future (at least, technical books). It seems that at least some people now think that online articles (referenced through Google and other search engines) will answer all of their questions and that books are passe. We’ve heard the same death knell sounded before and this one is just as false as those that came before.
There was a time when people said that radio was dead because of television. Fortunately for everyone, the doomsayers were wrong. Radio is still with us—albeit in a different form from those days gone by. In fact, when something proves useful enough, it remains viable and in use despite the appearance of newer technologies. Because of the comments I received from the Paper or eBook? post, I strongly believe that for this reason alone, books will remain one method of choice for obtaining technical information.
Online media does have many good attributes. I have no doubt that it provides a useful and welcome adjunct to books. I use online media myself for some of my research and for general information. From my perspective, online media has the following advantages over books:
- Timely: There isn’t any way a book will ever beat online media to market. Books can’t even beat magazines to market.
- Succinct: One misconception about online media is that there is no word limit. However, I haven’t ever seen a truly viable book-length online resource. Online resources are broken into small pieces that someone can digest in just a few minutes.
- Updateable: Both magazines and books have strict limits on updates. If the author makes a mistake, the publisher must provide a separate errata that the reader may not ever find.
- Inexpensive: There are paid online resources, but they’re in the minority. Most online resources, including this blog, are free. Some online resources do rely on subscriptions and a few are purchased as individual content items (much like a book), but I doubt that paid online media will ever take off as a major industry because it suffers from a severe problem—people tend to post the purchased online media on other sites so that others can download it free (often without any knowledge that the content is pirated).
- Searchable: Online media has all other forms of communication beat when it comes to searches. You can find what you need quickly, provided that the search engine isn’t overwhelmed with junk listings.
There are probably other reasons for using online media, but these reasons best serve the technical reader. It would seem that these reasons alone would compel a potential reader to use online sources. However, books continue to offer value in other ways. Readers will continue to flock to books (either in paper or e-Book form) for these reasons:
- Accurate: Because books are somewhat permanent, the vast majority are edited by someone other than the author. In fact, most books have several editors—each with a different specialized skill set. Multiple sets of eyes tend to reduce the probability of errors; although, some errors are bound to creep into any form of writing (see my Errors in Writing post for details).
- Fewer Fads: Books tend to focus on technology that has proven its worth, rather than following every fad on the market. Business runs on proven technology. Someone who is looking for time-tested technology will look in a book, not at an online resource.
- Author Availability: Having worked through the vagaries of community support myself, I know that it sometimes works, but often doesn’t. A good book author will provide a certain level of support and will answer reasonable questions about book content. You simply don’t get this sort of support using online media.
- Cohesive: A book offers something that online media can’t in the form of a cohesive work. Whatever the topic is, a book will offer a progression of some type and lets you see a technology from a long view, rather than as snippets.
- Less Junk: Online media can be clogged with all sorts of junk—material that has nothing to do with the topic at hand or that you simply don’t require. Books are more focused, stick to the subject, and are easier to visually filter. As a consequence, you can spend a lot less time getting what you need from a book.
There are some personal issues I have with online media. Many of the books and paper magazines I read are professionally written by authors with the experience to write well. Yes, some online media is also professionally written, but you’re just as likely to run into information written by an unknown entity. Because of the anonymity of the Internet, I find myself checking and rechecking information I obtain from it. Normally, I require at least three different sources, written by different authors, to confirm a fact from the Internet. I’m more likely to accept material from the books of authors that I know well simply because I have read the works of these authors for years and I’ve built up trust in what they have to say. Yes, it’s true that you should verify anything you read, but I find the Internet resources I read are far less reliable.
Much of the confusion about online media has nothing to do with the material itself, but with the authors. When you work mainly with books you hear the voices of a few well-known authors who have helped you over rough spots for many years. The Internet provides a cacophony of many voices that I don’t know. I don’t know how to read between the lines with these authors or understand when I need to consider the author’s personal biases. Again, this is a personal issue, rather than something you’ll need to consider, but if you’re like me, you do need to think about it at least.
I also find that the purpose of online media and books differ. Online media focuses on informing someone of a fact. When you read an online source, it’s to find a bit of information you need now in the fastest manner possible. On the other hand, books tend to focus on teaching. A book presents a topic in a way that helps the reader learn about the technology so that there is a better chance the reader will be able to answer questions about the technology later. This difference in focus is the reason I feel both technologies will remain useful.
As with the radio versus television discussion, I don’t think either online media or books are going to go away. They each have something valuable to offer—they both have their place in your technology toolbox. The ability to choose the right tool, at the right time, has always been the mark of a professional. If you rely exclusively on online media to obtain your technological information, you’re at a distinct disadvantage when compared to the person who uses both online media and books. How do you get your information? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.