Ian Paul on How Print Bibles Are Better than Digital

Ian Paul on How Print Bibles Are Better than Digital

Ian Paul recently wrote an interesting blog post on why print Bibles offer a better reading experience than digital Bibles, even though digital Bibles serve an important need. His conclusion:

So here is (electronically!) the bottom line: if you want people to engage well in reading Scripture, to remember what they have read, and to engage in a life-changing immersive experience of Bible reading, don’t put your Bible readings on screen. Buy pew Bibles!

He offers the following points in favour of print (do read the original for the complete discussion):

  1. Searching. “When a reading is announced, it is quicker and easier for those with print Bibles to find the reading, especially when the page number in common pew Bibles is given.”
  2. Canon. “When you open a print Bible, you are immediately aware of where the text you are reading comes in the Bible as a whole.” He further argues that print Bibles more easily give the reader the immediate context of the reading.
  3. Learning and cognition. “…the research evidence suggest that screens actually inhibit learning for a variety of reasons.”
  4. Real and lasting. “For most of us, electronic texts are ephemeral whilst printed texts are, in some distinct sense, real and lasting.”
  5. Public. “Books are public; by and large screens are private. If you are studying the Bible in a small group, the dynamic feels quite different when all are reading print Bibles on public display compared with everyone reading on their phones. Try it!”

An interesting discussion in the comments there follows with many noting their particular challenges and experiences of public readings of Scripture in a church context, the availability of pew Bibles, and the use of Scriptural text projected on a screen (or printed in a handout).

I think Ian offers a really interesting post that touches on many of the pertinent issues in considering the differences between printed and digital Bible texts. I generally agree with the point implied in his title, that printed Bibles, where accessible, are essential for Christians (i.e., given today’s technology, I would not wish to dispense with printing Bibles, even though, as Ian well knows, printed Bibles have only been widely used for no more than a quarter of the church’s history to date). However, I would offer the following comments, many of which are agreeable:

  • The blog post addresses a number of ways to engage the Bible, and these need to be distinguished when a user considers what is ‘best’ for a given purpose. Printed Bibles and electronic texts are the two main categories introduced near the beginning, but also mentioned are printed sheets, text projected onto a screen, phone apps, and desktop software. Digital Bibles might also be designed any numbers of ways, including with pagination to mimic a printed Bible, the ability to annotate, etc. Likewise, small printed Bibles may actually offer less ‘context-at-a-glance’ than larger phones and tablets. And of course, personal, small group, and church contexts are also at play, and each must also be taken into account. I think Ian’s post primarily addresses Scripture readings in a church service though in some of his points he envisions smaller, more private settings.
  • Searching can be faster in digital Bibles, even searching for a passage when given its reference. It depends on the interface design, hardware speed (for digital Bibles), the user’s acquaintance with the Bible at hand, and the nature of the search.
  • It is interesting that at least a couple of the commenters feel the audience should be discouraged from reading along during a scripture reading but actually be intent on listening. 
  • On issues of print’s capacity for what I’ll call ‘canon and context awareness’, I generally agree. I would add that we generally assign the material features of a Bible certain values that can be lost or diminished in digital forms (for more on this, one may look at my article referred to below which deals with an analogous issue, digital vs. printed liturgy). I recently put it like this:

Note that the binding itself is significant; it is a paratext that conveys the message that these documents belong together, reinforced by uniform typography, page layout, and consecutive page numbering across the bound collection. But in terms of the text’s history, these paratexts potentially obscure the fact that the documents within were completed at various times over the course of 1,500 or more years by authors who almost certainly did not envision that their work would be read alongside of these other works. Imagine the difference if, instead, these documents were each individually bound—perhaps 66 thin volumes arranged on a shelf. This is not unlike the arrangement of previous collections of biblical texts as collections of scrolls. How then do paratextual messages change in a digital biblical text? Consider how the finality of a printed Bible is far less acute in its digital counterpart. One can hold a printed book—it is bound and not easily modified. A Bible app, on the other hand, is periodically updated with new features, corrections, etc. In short, the paratextual messages of a printed book and its digital counterpart are distinct. (From my article, ‘Mobile Liturgy: Reflections on the Church of England’s Daily Prayer App‘)

  • A minor point of disagreement: It is not completely clear why Christians preferred the codex from a relatively early stage, nor exactly how early this was the case. An excellent discussion of these issues, including some reasons why economy, convenience, and social class are not sufficient explanations for Christian preference for the codex are given by Harry Gamble in his Books and Readers in the Early Church (esp. pp. 49–66). InterestinglyGamble argues that ‘the Pauline letter collection’ best explains the adoption of the codex by Christians at such an early period and quick pace.
  • Also, I am not quite prepared to grant Ian’s suggestion that the cited studies proposing that reading from a screen inhibits learning are easy to apply to cases such as the public reading of Scripture.

Thanks to Ian for a stimulating post.

For more on digital Bibles and related topics, see the following BibBible posts:

The App of the Gods: How much God is in my digital bible? – Ben Gunter

Your Technology is Talking: Do you hear its message? — Joshua Mann (DMA Series)

Bible Reading Plans: Print Drives Digital(?) 

Reader’s Bibles: Taking Away Distractions?

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