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Books have enormous value, whatever the delivery mechanism

It’s not the books themselves that are so important. It’s what’s in them that counts.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the death of books in the electronic era are greatly exaggerated. We need look no further than the value of books in advancing education around the world.

Patrick Plonski

A recent World Bank report from May of this year emphasizes the urgent need to get textbooks into the hands of every student in sub-Saharan Africa. The report states that “no other input is likely to be more cost effective than making high-quality learning materials available to all students.”

Low cost, high return

The World Bank undertook two other large-scale studies in 1987 and 2002, involving more than 89 education projects across Africa, both confirming the cost-effectiveness and importance of books. The 2002 report said that in Africa, next to a good teacher, “a good textbook is the most effective medium of instruction.” Another study concluded that textbooks were low-cost inputs in Africa with high returns in student achievement. It found that providing one textbook to every student in a classroom increased literacy scores by 5-20 percent.

Half the world’s population under 18 will be in Africa by the end of the 21st century. In a global world, it is essential that the current generation of African children – and indeed children around the world — receive a world-class education. Delivering books to students is a tried and true method to move this vision toward reality.

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Today, you can read a book on an e-reader. You can listen to an audio-book on an iPhone. You can read a book review on a hard copy newspaper. You can read a traditional book printed on paper.

Or, like me, today you can have a house piled high with so many books of every sort that you don’t know what to do with them. You can (like thousands of people) install a Little Free Library in your yard to share the piles of books in your home!

What of the future? I’m still waiting for all of my “cool stuff” as predicted by the 1989 movie “Back to the Future,” where Marty McFly travels in a DeLorean-turned-time-machine to October 21, 2015, where there are flying cars. So, predicting the future is always a dangerous proposition.

Demand is likely to continue

But if I were to go out on a ledge, I would say that in the future, demand for the things that books give us in society – stories, imagination, documentation, data collection, pleasure, social connectivity, prestige – will continue. The only question is the delivery mechanism. If books are read to us on iPhone, do they count as books? Or, are we back to Homer before the Iliad was written down, or Shakespeare and his plays? Not books, but rather the “raw material for books.” What is a book? Paper with words written on it? Can it be papyrus, stone, bark, sheep skin parchment … or digital lights on an e-reader screen?

But even things we “know” about the future of the book can be questioned. A 2015 report documents how demand for e-books, once projected to overtake print by 2015, has instead slowed — sharply. E-book sales actually fell by 10 percent in the first five months of this year, and have accounted for approximately 20 percent of the market now for several years.

We do know that throughout history, books have long been in demand, mainly for record keeping and the transmission of ideas. Books remain in high demand around the world, with reading for pleasure now being a key new driver of demand. Traditional hard-copy books remain an incredibly cheap, efficient, and durable delivery mechanisms for ideas. This is one reason they are so much in demand, especially in places such as schools, universities and libraries across Africa where the “bang for the buck” is enormous.

It’s what’s in them that counts

Today, content and delivery mechanisms are often separate – such as e-readers and smartphones serving many purposes. Book content is only one item in these delivery mechanisms. This trend will clearly continue in the future, most probably including delivery mechanisms of which we will have never even dreamed.

It’s not the books themselves that are so important. It’s what’s in them that counts. So there will continue to be demand in the future by society for the ideas, record keeping and entertainment that books provide. It was always such, it remains so, and it will remain so in the foreseeable future … unless it doesn’t. Because, in truth, who can foretell the future?

Patrick Plonski is the executive director of Books For Africa, a St. Paul-based nonprofit that is the largest shipper of books to Africa. This piece was adapted from a speech he gave recently at the historic Bibliotheca Alexandrina Library in Alexandria, Egypt.

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