By: Muhammed Abdullahi Tosin

The enduring advancement in scientific innovation and the irresistible potentialities of technology are transforming how we acquire and share knowledge, our understanding of what constitutes educational materials, and the key learning skills we will need to be successful learners. Yesterday, there were no books. Today, books fill libraries and house vast knowledge. What tomorrow holds in fostering scholarship is a subject of intense debate.

This essay presents an analysis of the evolution of books and the way reading and knowledge acquisition is changing. It draws from personal experiences and relevant statistics to argue that the increasing acceptability and popularity of emerging alternatives to print books are part of an irresistible, perhaps desirable, trend we should embrace, not lament or feel helpless about.

Change is a permanent phenomenon. In ancient civilizations, no books existed. Men learnt by hard personal experience or word-of-mouth transmission of knowledge. Over time, the cave man advanced and shared his thoughts and erudition through image and sign depictions on walls of caves, muds, tree barks, mountain tops and leaves. Later, a paper-like plant, papyrus was used in Egypt for writing.

Books remained nonexistent till around 105 AD when the appearance of paper was facilitated by Chinese inventors. Presentation of information in books was hand-written and low-key until 1440 when the printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg. This flung open the door to en mass publication, dissemination and consumption of educational materials from all around the world. Textbooks, novels, surveys, biographies, etc, flooded the public spheres of learning and those we today call bookworms started discovering their hobby.

With more advancement in science and technology, song recorders, video recorders as well as radio and video broadcating surfaced. With that, a potent rival – or maybe an alternative or complement – arose to challenge the long-enjoyed dominion of books. This engendered the storing and transferring of knowledge to more people in more places within a shorter time. The retrieval of the knowledge which was gradually becoming ubiquitous was facilitated by utility gadgets like radio, television, video player and DVD player. These multi-media afforded improved accessibility to knowledge and information. The hiccup here was that these knowledge-sharing outlets and tools came at a fortune and some poor people in some suburbs were coldly ostracized.

With the advent of the Internet, books and printed materials got a real threat, not just a complement or an alternative. This development gave birth to e-books, internet surfing on hand-held devices, mobile phones and PC and the emergence of free platforms for sharing files that can be viewed online or downloaded. YouTube, Scibd, Wikipedia, Google Scholar, etc. are only some popular names making this happen. The emergence of social media and internet news portals has greatly improved our accessibility to events as they break.

I had an undergraduate friend who would simply access and download all the books he needed from Google Scholar, Scribd and 4shared. That was many years ago, and because I had no PC, I would envy him and wish I had such opportunity. I only imagined how soothing it would be to cut expenses on books and simply search for a required piece of information without having to browse through loads of pages of books or newspapers to get an assignment done.

But even then, I effectively utilized my mobile phone to access whatever information I needed, albeit without the ability to download and read offline. Now I have a PC and many hand-held devices, and buying books in print has entirely become a question of choice. Having an unrestricted access to an avalanche of free or insanely affordable ebooks, journals, articles, educational videos, podcast, online tutorials, webinars and super-highway news at the click of a button hasn’t been easier.

My example is by no means an isolated case. It’s in fact well replicated. In 2010, ebook sales started seriously competing with, and even threatening, sales of print books. Even when the global economic meltdown crumbled economies and the sales of print books went low, ebooks continued their upward drive. And then in early 2011, in what is an unprecedented development, ebook sales by Amazon overtook paperback and hardback combined and recorded a 117% increase from 2010 to 2011, according to the Association of American Publishers. The sales could have been double the actual boom recorded if Amazon’s digital books could be read outside the Kindle platform. And hear this: the total does not include millions of free kindle books.

Some 3 years ago, I recommended an online store of downloadable free ebooks to a friend and he shrugged. I took the chance to seek his opinion about the rising popularity of electronic alternatives to the traditional print books. He expressed some qualms about them. “Reading on screen strains my eyes and makes me sleepless; and it’s not even a permanent information storage conduit. You can lose all your collection at once if your device gets lost, stolen or attacked by a malware,” he explained.

I had simply told him that any disaster could crumble a physical library or shelf of books too. It could be an earthquake, a house fire, flood, house collapse or whatnot. But that isn’t even what I would say today. Although many people have fears about these electronic alternatives and even some erroneously think an end to books would be the demise of literature, the bitter fact is that the revolution is so compelling we can’t help it. It’s like a powerful hurricane sweeping anything and everything on its way.

We may not like that evolution occurred from how knowledge was shared in the Stone Age to how we do it now, and we may detest that the emerging alternatives are being embraced, but it’s part of a trend – an improved way of thinking and acting – which magnetic appeal we can’t resist. This growing natural trend was aptly captured by Gary McLaren in his book, The Beginner’s Guide to Ebooks: “Twenty years ago very few people owned a computer so there was no need to have ebooks. Nowadays it’s unusual for someone not to own several different devices capable of reading ebooks – from PCs to laptops to mobile phones and more.”

In keeping with this gripping trend, many traditionally published books have been converted to ebooks alongside the works of self-published authors. While all of us cannot be agreed on the propriety of such a development, I feel it’s a great relief from one of my challenges as an undergraduate student. I reside in the hostel of the University of Ilorin and usually have to grunt under the burden of transporting boxes after boxes containing my books to and fro the hostel. My parents live in far away Lagos, so I always keep my heap of books with my friends in Ilorin town during the annual vacation. By contrast, I have many times more ebooks than prints and conveying them has never given me any concern.

Although some of us are resistant to change, the majority are already tapping from the awesome benefits these alternatives to books afford humanity. Do you know many folks who don’t own any of a GPRS or 3G-enabled mobile phone, mp3 player, iPod, iPad, Blackberry, iPhone, android, galaxy or kindle? I bet you don’t. That’s to tell you how powerful the revolution is.

With much buzz about ebooks here and there, over 950,000 titles in the Kindle store, Amazon’s selling of 105 Kindle books for every 100 print books, paperback and hardback, since April 2011 and the proliferation of increasingly affordable gadgets for reading ebooks, it seems fairly certain that ebooks are here to stay and bookstores might be closing sooner rather than later.

In the end of it all, I think the question isn’t whether the new media facilitating knowledge sharing and acquisition would make books go into extinction. It’s far beyond that. The real issue we should realize, adapt to and leverage on is that educational materials are now portable, and knowledge is now ubiquitous, accessible at the click of a button; it’s now super affordable, obtainable at a peanut or at no cost at all.

The information revolution is here. How soon and well we accept this reality and adapt to it would make the whole difference; it would make or break us.

 

*Muhammed Abdullahi Tosin is a professional freelance writer and the CEO of Naija Writers’ Coach. He posts essay contest announcements and teaches how to write winning essays at www.NaijaWritersCoach.com. You may follow him on Twitter @Oxygenmat