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(No.7) Document Readability

Buddhism became popular during the ancient Tang Dynasty and its scriptures embodied important knowledge and culture. Those documents were some of the first printed materials to target many readers. The Japanese envoys to the Tang Dynasty spent much to buy those books. They bought so many, in fact, that book stores in Changan, the Tang Dynasty capital, experienced supply shortages after the envoys left for Japan. Most of the books comprised written characters with some illustrations. The information was set to paper by pen or brush, all done by hand. However, an efficient way to mass produce the books was found.

To be a Buddhist monk, long training was required. During training, the novice learns characters and accumulates knowledge. Copying the scriptures was a great way to train. And considering the cheap labor and strong demand, copied scriptures became best sellers. This excellent business model survived until only recently in Japan's Buddhist society. Poetic scripture known as Goeika is a good example.

As the demand for books grew, however, handwriting couldn't keep up. The typewriter offered the first solution. Then came the word processor. The two technologies produced the typist. Now that PCs and the Internet have become commonplace, just about everyone has the opportunity to read on-screen.

Each time a new display system is introduced, readability researchers check its friendliness for end users. After more than 20 years of research into improving displays, most psychological surveys indicate that people still like to read on paper rather than on-screen. Statistics published in America show that only 13% of all documents are read exclusively on-screen (A. Gujar, et al, "A Comparative Evaluation of Display Technologies for Reading," Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 4th annual meeting, p. 527, 1998). In 2003, however, I asked Chinese students in Beijing how often they printed out documents. Most answered that they mainly read documents on-screen. They feel that paper consumption is a waste of resources.

Even now, the importance of paper documents has not decreased so paper documents will continue to be important for the time being. We do need, however, to be patient and learn to read electronic documents more comfortably.

(Ej, 2004.1)

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