It wasn’t too long ago that people thought reading books on a computer could never replace the real, ink-and-paper feel of a good old-fashioned book. And while people continue to appreciate books in their traditional form, sales of Amazon’s Kindles topped $4.5 billion last year, according to research by Morgan Stanley. More telling, though, is how normal it seems to read a book on an electronic device. But scientists and developers haven’t stopped there. New technology continues to challenge our notions of what we read, how we read, and who has access to reading.
Researchers at Stony Brook University (SBU), NY, have developed a program that they say can predict future best-selling books, by tracking similarities in style, word choice, and sentence structure that have been shown to exist among books that are already best sellers. They say they’ve achieved an 84 percent success rate when applying their program to already published books.
Michael Santangelo, the electronic services coordinator for BookOps, which handles selection, acquisitions, management, and distribution for New York Public Library (NYPL) and Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), said he’d be excited to try another tool that helps make the selection process easier. A 2011 Library Journal Mover & Shaker, Santangelo is already been using the CollectionHQ service at NYPL and BPL for three years
“It uses evidence-based inventory management so you can see what’s going and not going in your collection, so you can remove what’s not moving,” Santangelo said of that service, though he also noted that “we love technology to move us further along in the process, but we don’t want to remove the person from the decision.”
While a best seller predictor may influence what we read, a new app is aiming to change how we read, by using an old method of speed-reading and reworking it for the technological age.
Spritz, an app available for mobile devices, shows a quick succession of single words, which developers say cuts the time your eyes spend searching for words on a page, can increase your reading speed, and is ideal for reading text on small screens.
Barbara Chaparro, a professor at Wichita State University, KS, has authored several studies about the rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) technology used by Spritz and said the app could be a good way to read on a mobile device. The app has already received criticism from experts who say reading comprehension suffers as the rate of words per minute increases, but Chaparro said speed wouldn’t necessarily be the goal for users of the app—the usefulness may lie in its ability to be employed on tiny screens, such as Google Glass monitors or smartwatches. Also, Spritz can be set to run at 250 words per minute, which is about the average reading speed. “That’s what RSVP was originally developed for, people who wanted to speed-read,” Chaparro said. “But they weren’t really thinking of these kind of applications at that time.”
Perhaps technology’s biggest impact on reading lies in the access for those who have traditionally struggled with gaining it—namely, blind people. Karen Keninger, the director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, said that technology has completely changed the reading experience for blind people.
“Before the internet and everything, you’d have hard-copy braille or human narrative recording,” Keninger said. “Now you have digital text, that you can use a device to read with braille or listen to it being read digitally,” something she says has given blind people the ability to read a much wider range of text.
A new device made by researchers at MIT hopes to take that even further—the Finger Reader, a device that’s worn like a ring, has the ability to scan words that you point to on the page and read them aloud to you. It uses optical character recognition, or OCR, which has been a mainstay of reading technology for the blind since the 1970s, but makes it smaller, wearable, and portable.
Keninger isn’t convinced the Finger Reader will be better for reading than a traditional OCR device, which scans a page at a time and reads it aloud digitally, particularly for longer material, like you’d often see at a library.
“I think you’d have to be, if you were a blind person, you’d need some training to use that,” Keninger said. “I could see it being useful for reading something short, like a label on a soup can.”
For libraries, the NLS has created an app that allows blind readers to download books onto their mobile devices. They currently have 12,000 braille titles, which can be read with a Bluetooth braille attachment, and 40,000 audio books available, and the number is growing daily.
“We tend to focus on what we can’t do sometimes,” Keninger said, “but the fact is there is a tremendously greater amount of information available that I have access to.”