The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

The school library and the breakout of the visual

In Chapter 4 of his book, Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print, Jay David Bolter (2001) discusses the rise of the visual and its impact on text.  As a Teacher-Librarian the rise of the visual in our culture is particular interest to me.  As our post-print generation moves through the education system we are being challenged to redefine the nature of libraries and their role in education.  In this commentary I view Bolter’s work through the lens of my profession.


Of immediate interest in Bolter’s work is the notion that images on the World Wide Web dominate but images on the printed page are contained by the text that surrounds them.  There is an element of control in print culture that is not evident in web-based applications.  Specifically mentioned is the way that professional journals and other scholarly texts surround the images they permit and supervise the reading of the image.


Bolter points out that even when images dominate in scholarly text there is little doubt that the text is in a position of control.  He refers to this use of image as “textural”.  This notion gives rise to the question of whether images in web-based works don’t often provide this same function.  When I think of the way that I, my colleagues and my students use images in the products of our learning it seems that they often serve to give texture to the work.  Images are frequently included after text is written or are accompanied by explanatory text.  This may indicate that our use of image is still in its infancy to some extent.  Are those of us born of a predominantly print-based culture slow to learn how to harness the power of the visual?


Bolter questions what is happening to print and prose in what he calls the, “late age of print” (2001) and suggests that text is morphing itself to both compete with and incorporate the proliferation of images and their inherent cultural power.  In the school library this is evident in the rise of graphic novelizations of classic children’s books such as the Hardy Boys series by Scott Lobdell and Paulo Henrique.  Text in these graphic novels is far less than in the original book versions and are accompanied by images that serve to both complement and supplement the story.  Works such as the ground-breaking, The adventure of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick offer a combination of text and stand-alone images to tell the story.  Additionally, many text-based works now offer web-based links to additional story features and activities based on the books.  These applications are largely visual and demonstrate the turning tide children’s literature.  An excellent example of this is the 39 Clues series, by Scholastic Press.


Interesting too is the suggestion that this remediation of print is born out of both enthusiasm and fear.  Change is generally a feared state of being and as a Teacher-Librarian I am constantly aware of the combination of these reactions to changes in our formerly print-based culture among my professional colleagues.  While some embrace and endorse the changes in literacy there are a great number who wish to stem the tide of change in order to maintain their sense of purpose.


Teacher-Librarians, in their quest to maintain the sanctity of the physical library space and all that it contains, are also uniquely challenged by the fact, as Bolter explains, that text is now competing, “for a reader’s attention with a variety of pictorial elements, any or all of which may be in motion” (2001).   This increasingly visual world with its cultural expectation of high quality images, special effects and incredible animations makes capturing the attention of today’s students very difficult.  Students are often witnessing works of text as image-based before they discover that the material existed in a print-based form long before it was released as a full-length feature movie.  There have been a number of films based on children’s literature in the last few years.  What Teacher-Librarians are commenting on is how often these movies serve as the first introduction to the material for most children.  Eragon, Cloudy with a chance of meatballs, Where the wild things are, and Hoot are some of the many movie scripts derived from books.  Many of my professional colleagues criticize these movies and what they perceive as their detrimental effects on reading.  However, I often notice in my own practice that these movies often lead my students to seek out the books that the movie plots came from.  In this way the text seems to be benefited by the image and draws a new generation of consumers of print into the fold.


The breakout of the visual will undoubtedly have significant impacts on many areas of our culture.  This impact will not escape the school library and its keepers.  Teacher-Librarians are at a cultural turning point.  They will need to find a way to adapt and manage as text changes in the wake the rise of the visual.  How well they will fare remains to be seen.



Bolter, J. D. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print [2nd edition]. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.29.09 at 9:26 am }

In Mexico my problem is that my students will almost always choose the movie over the book.

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