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Paperless Society?

by on July 9, 2014

For years we’ve all been hearing how in the not so distant future all things will be electronic! We don’t need libraries because we have e-books. We don’t need librarians because we have the Internet.  All we will need is our little devices.

For the same number of years, those of us paying attention have looked at each other in puzzlement.  We are painfully aware that not all information is available electronically. In much the same manner we needed Librarians to train and guide people through the vast wealth of material available in print, we are now needed even more with the greater complexities of electronic formats. The devices are cool, certainly. And like all tools, they hold a useful and special place, but we also know that tools like these supplement, not replace.

Soon to start mass production is a device that I believe proves one of our points. In the Fall, Zuta Labs will start producing “a wheeled, 4-inch-square, teardrop-shaped inkjet printer [that] drives itself across sheets of paper to print documents and images.”1 Pocket scanners have been around for years. Now, you may transport your documents, pictures, copies and printer wherever you go. Soon, you will also be able to print as well.

All indications are that this pocket printer will be very popular. With initial backers only paying $180, the project generated $500,000 on Kickstarter and has received additional grant money.

The development of this product is significant in the ever present electronics debate.  Why would the paperless society ever want the ability to print at any time, any place? If all documents can be read electronically, having one master printer somewhere might be useful, but why would individuals want to pay to have this feature on their person?

Most librarians know the answer to this: people like to read things in hard copy. They find it easier to comprehend, recall and absorb. Even empirical research suggests that while equivalence between computer and paper-based tasks in terms of comprehension, speed, preference, etc. are growing closer, there seems to be tasks in which it simply is not possible.2  Further, some information simply needs to be shared in more tangible and long-term formats.  Additionally, as I have noted elsewhere, there are issue of security and longevity that can require hard copy documentation.

Yet a pocket printer does have the potential for drastically changing our information habits, particularly for libraries.  It could certainly alter issue of space within libraries. Imagine the real estate we might gain if our printers fit in less than 1 square foot. In turn, it could also pose some interesting logistics of patron access. Would we circulate our printer? How could we assure no one pockets it and wanders off?

One thing is clear, however: the very notion of such a device challenges the notion of a paperless society. It is time to stop thinking paper vs electronic and recognize we are a society of both.


  1. Zuta Labs Pocket Printer
  2. Computer Vs. Paper 

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