Public Research Report:

by Mark Angelo Cela


With the release of the first iPhone in 2007 and the first iPad in 2010, Apple ushered in a new age of personal computing. With the widespread adoption of devices such as smartphones, tablets, and e-books, more people began to read books in digital formats. E-book readers such as the Amazon Kindle may hold dozens or hundreds of books at a given time, allowing readers to carry an entire personal library with them. While these devices have gained in popularity, there are many avid readers who refuse to adopt the e-book.


Purpose of this Research

The focus of this research is an attempt at understanding the unique attachment people have to analog book formats over the digital alternatives. The research suggests that people love books for more than just the information or stories that exist within the pages. The physical presence of a book has varying effects on people, ranging from identifying a person as someone who loves to read, to an object which causes vivid memories of specific moments in time for the reader. This study is about those readers.

A key component of this project is an attempt to understand how people define personal value and ownership of books, and how reader reaction to physical books differs to electronic books. This research matters to writers, publishers, graphic and product designers, as well as universities changing to electronic libraries. A goal of the research is to arrive at information that will assist these individuals and universities in understanding why people choose physical books over e-books, and what factors to consider when designing or presenting a digital book.



Books have significant meaning for many people, and for bibliophiles that meaning is expressed in different ways. For some people physical books are reminders of time, place, and person. Other readers may use carrying or displaying a physical book as a sign that they belong to a specific intellectual group. For most, the stories and characters are very important to readers, but where and when they read a book is often just as significant. Much of the research suggests that there is an important connection between the experience of reading a physical book, the memories a reader associates with a book, how they learn from books, and how important books become for readers as a symbol of all these concepts.

When applications such as Apple iBooks were introduced 2010, there was excitement for the possibilities of the platform. Apple, Samsung, and Amazon all produced powerful tablets capable of combining the internet, social media, sound, and video into one device. The publishing industry missed the opportunity to take advantage of what these devices were capable of delivering by producing mostly one-to-one transfers of books in various e-book formats. The power of platforms such as the iPad were used for primarily page-turning animations rather than a deeply enriched experience that could not be replicated in print form.

Research - Survey

Research Question: Why are people uniquely attached to physical books over digital alternatives?

The research was constructed purposefully to discover the emotions experienced by readers as they consumed books. It was essential that readers were provided the opportunity to express in their own words why physical books mean so much to them. Interviews and surveys were developed to allow these individuals to share their experiences still providing measurable data.

Use of an online survey was an important factor to the collection of data for this research. It provided an easily distributable, anonymous, platform for readers to speak about their reading and technology habits. While much of the survey was measurable information, an open-ended final question gave participants the opportunity to share in-depth experiences and thoughts about what books meant to them.

The questions in this survey were purposefully written to address attitudes toward technology, attachment to inanimate objects, tendencies of the participant to anthropomorphize objects, and the social aspects of their book reading habits.

Research – Semi-Structured Interview

Face-to-face interviews were conducted in order to study the body language and voice inflections of the participants as they spoke about books. Interviews show excitement, disappointment, anger, and complacency in ways that may be difficult to interpret through surveys alone. A semi-structured interview allows participants to explore subject matter that researchers may not have considered and yield unexpected valuable data.

Interviews were conducted at the convenience of each participant, and the location depended on their preference. Interviews took place in a variety of environments, including coffee shops, the kitchen of the researcher, an office at Miami University, and over Google Hangouts video conferencing software while the participant sat in their home library.


Results and Findings

Data collected from the survey and interviews indicates that attachment to physical books is often a combination of attributing meaning to physical objects and the tactile response to those objects.  Participants mentioned aspects such as the odor of new and old book pages, the satisfaction of flipping paper, and the feeling of accomplishment as they drew physically closer to the end of a book. They mentioned worn, used, books as a well-travelled path, and many recalled the importance of cover art as an attractive component to becoming interested in picking up a book. Most mentioned how books could make them vividly recall such things as time, place, and person.

However, childhood, being read to as a child, or reading with a child, were the most mentioned memories by participants. Childhood and the positive effect mothers and grandmothers had on the reading experience were mentioned most frequently, although family members as a group had a lasting impact on attitudes towards reading. Participants also mentioned books having a strong connection to memories regarding vacations or trips. With regard to memories of specific time, participants related books to what stage of primary, secondary, or post-secondary schooling they were in when reading a book. They generally mentioned specific years only with regard to life events and reading after their highest-level of education.

Most participants who were interviewed shared that they kept the books they read, although those who did get rid of books always gave them away, either because they viewed used books as rarely having value worth pursuing, or out of altruism. Those who took from free book bins felt an obligation to return the favor to those same bins.

The majority of participants mentioned having two main types of book shelves in their homes. There were general book cases for the books readers chose to display, and then private book cases for books that had significant meaning to the individuals. None of the interviewees described these books as possessing significant monetary value, rather the ones kept private held significant sentimental value.


Design Intervention

Design interventions are not always obvious. This is why research is extensively pursued and data analyzed before interventions may be designed. The research began with one simple question:

Why do people develop unique emotional attachment to analog books over digital alternatives?

The data pointed to several conclusions which resulted in the discovery of three overarching desires: the desire to share reading with others, the desire to make memories, and the desire to experience deeper content relating to the books they loved.

It was decided that the design intervention was to be a tablet application that provides readers with options beyond simply having the convenience of digital books. The application would address the three critical desires of socialization, connection with the author, and memory making. After considering several different names, BookLinks was chosen for the simplistic way the name conveyed the connections between the user and the social functions outlined in the application.

Application Testing

The application was well-received by participants. Perhaps the most poignant part of the testing was when each participant, without instigation, began to talk about what they could accomplish with an app like BookLinks. The data suggests that what readers would primarily utilize the app for would be book extras involving the author and to create and share commentary with friends and family. The album section, which features all the user created media associated with the book, received the highest praise.

Recording and sharing memories with others supplied the desired gratification bibliophiles desired with a physical book. While none of the test participants would probably trade their physical books for the BookLinks application, all expressed extreme interest in using such an application when earlier in the research they had rejected the idea of using e-books completely.



What is the answer to why to people form a unique attachment to physical books over the digital alternative? They do so because physical books provide a connection to others and a reminder of place and time in ways that current digital e-book delivery systems are unable to provide. There is also a sensory component that is strongly associated with the experience of physical books, and until digital books can be infused with memory-making features that hold some level of permanence, physical books will remain the preferred choice of most bibliophiles.