Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Go Read a Book -- Ebook vs. Paper

Bouquin électronique iLiad sur une pile de livre dehors au soleil.jpg

[Note: In reading a number of comments made to some of my recent blog posts both to the posts directly and in other venues, I suggest that those making comments read my posts before commenting. It is interesting to read comments that clearly indicate that the commentator has not really read what I wrote. Not that I care all that much one way or the other. As I have said a number of times, as an old trial attorney, I am more than accustomed to being told I am wrong.]

As a spin off from my comments on libraries, I got a few of the very common comments on the merits of ebooks vs. paper books and vice versa. I guess I am going to have to start this post by admitting that I prefer reading a book on my iPad to reading a paper book, hands down, no contest. I am constantly bumping into the limitations of paper books when I read them. The main issue is that when the print is on paper, it cannot be easily quoted in a blog post. I am a little aggravated when I have to transcribe a quote that I want for a post. In addition, I carry either an iPad or an iPhone with me all the time and so therefore, I can read anytime I find myself idled by our complex society. There are a number of other issues, but first some general comments.

That said, what is the future of paper?

Most of the comments about the ebook vs. paper reading experience are couched in terms relating to what we are accustomed to using. Habit is hard to break and reading paper has a long association for me that goes back to my childhood. Nostalgia goes a long way when we start talking about the lore of books. I do like books, as books. I have a few thousand of them and buy more all the time, but that does not prevent me from appreciating the advantages of ebooks.

If you search online for "ebooks vs. paper books" you will see that this is hardly an isolated topic. There are thousands of articles both pro-ebooks and pro-paper books. Very few of the comments relate to the basic technological and economic reasons why ebooks will ultimately prevail over paper.

When I was a lot younger than I am today, I was a avid fan of radio. I used to listen to shortwave broadcasts well into the night. Even before I owned a shortwave receiver, I listened to distant radio stations. I spent my summers high on the Colorado Plateau at nearly 6000 feet above sea level and we had few local stations and only one or two I could listen to during the daytime. But at night, without the interference from the sun, I could pick up stations all over the country. One of my favorites was KOMA in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Fast forward to today. I haven't listened to a radio at all for months. All the nostalgia in the world will not send me back to listening to my teenage past on a modern version of KOMA or any other radio station. Radio played a huge part in my life back then, but that is back then. Today, I listen to and Amazon Prime Music. I can choose the type of music I listen to and when I want to listen.

Now back to ebooks. I have spent a goodly portion of my life reading. But I have the same issues with reading books that I have with "old time: radio. They take time I no longer want to spend.  I still go to libraries. I still check out paper books and read them, I checked out four yesterday and I have already read one of them. But I prefer ebooks for the following reasons:

  • I can read anytime and virtually any place I am located.
  • I can vary the size of the print (font) to accommodate my eyesight.
  • I can read at night, in the dark without turning on a light.
  • The devices synchronize and put me back on the page I am reading automatically.
  • I can search for terms, look up the meaning of words, switch to doing research on a subject and go back to my book seamlessly.
  • I can copy and paste portions of the books I am reading for blog posts.
  • I can find the books I am interested in online.
  • I can do research in books and search for specific terms in a matter of seconds.
  • I do not have to read the entire book to find the one or two items I am researching.
I cannot do any of these things with paper books. 

Now to genealogy. I have recently described my most common methodology for researching in paper books. I walk the shelves and pick off books one after another and search them manually for information about my family. Now, I can search literally millions of books online and find even more information than I could previously, faster, easier and without going to a library. The reality of those who pine away for paper books is that they have access to very, very few paper genealogy books. If you go to the average, local public library, you might have a dozen or so popular books on genealogy, but real research in books requires travel to major libraries with very large collections. One of the main attractions of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah has been its huge collection of genealogy books. Now, many of those books are available online. 

As an example, I did a search online in the Provo, Utah City Library catalog for "genealogy." There are 229 books in that subject category including periodicals and some of that number are ebooks. In fact, most of those books are local and family history books. I then did a search on the same subject in the Brigham Young University, Harold B. Lee Library catalog. There are 126,532 books in that subject category. Now, lets look at what is available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. According to Newsroom of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah has approximately 356,000 books, serials, and other formats (note the round number). In addition, the Family History Library has been removing paper books from the shelves in the Library as they have been digitized. The number of total books does not reflect the number of books left in paper format on the shelves in the Library.

Now let's look at some of the ebook collections. presently has 440,870 books and publications in ebook format on genealogy. All completely searchable and all automatically searched for relevant references to the ancestors in all of the family trees on the program's website. Books presently has 282,516 books in ebook format. Some of these come from a consortium of libraries across the country. has 123,874 ebooks in the category of genealogy, all completely searchable and completely available online. has 23,538 items in its "Stories, Memories and Histories" category. The has 278,741 items in response to a search on genealogy. Finally, Google Books shows 983,000 items in a search for genealogy but not all of these are completely available through Google. 

All of these figures are limited to books that are categorized as "genealogy" books etc. In reality, we do research in a lot of books and documents that are not specifically catalogued as genealogy books. 

Regardless of whether you prefer to do your recreational reading on an electronic device or want to hold a paper book in your hands, you have to realize that doing genealogical research one paper book at a time is now a thing of the past. 

As a final note. Almost none of these "genealogy" books are available from the online book supplier,, used by local public libraries to provide recreational ebooks to their patrons. Also, there are very few of these genealogy books available through or any of the other popular online ebook services. For example, shows 10,200,914 ebooks in its online catalog. About a million of those are on Kindle Unlimited allowing access by subscription. Only 8,678 of those come up in a search for genealogy books, some of which are free, some are available in Kindle Unlimited and some only by purchase. 

Those of my readers who think that I conclude that libraries will disappear due to ebooks alone, miss the point of this discussion. What I am really saying is that as genealogists, we probably will not be using paper books at any of our local public libraries and that if they depend on us as researchers, they have already lost our business. 


  1. I agree with all of your stated advantages of eBooks over hard-copy, except in one very narrow category.
    Technical books with profuse illustrations, especially those related to programming languages, frequently exhibit the bad habit of putting an image on page 254, while its explanation resides on page 257 (or some other inconvenient pair of separated pages). While a printed text allows me to hold both pages open simultaneously to see the code sample, or other image, and at the same time study the related text, switching back and forth between non-consecutive pages is, for me, somewhat more challenging with an eBook.
    I currently have two Nook Readers from Barnes & Noble. I wouldn’t give up either of them. Each is equipped with a 16 GB SD card packed with books (by the way, I also see the ability to carry an entire library of books in a device that will fit in a coat pocket as another major advantage of the eBook format). Sadly, for every technical title that I have on those Readers, I’ve ended up buying the corresponding paper edition. In many cases, particularly books from Microsoft Press, both the hard-copy, and the eBook were purchased together as a package.

    1. Thanks for the additional insight. It is sometimes true that reference books get shuffled in ebook format. I think that is a problem that will be resolved in time. But the bundling issue is merely an attempt to keep the paper book publishers in business.