Print Less, Smile More

Photo by Keith Williamson, from Flickr (

Affiliates of the Graduate Center have the enviable perk of unlimited on-campus printing. If you want to print a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary and you have about ten hours you don’t need, you can.1 (Don’t expect IT to provide 22,000 sheets of paper for you, though.) And, as anyone who’s wandered past the printers at the end of a semester knows, we GCers use our printing privileges, a lot.

Unlimited printing does, in real life, have limits. First there are the logistical snags of printing here, or indeed anywhere. Most of us have had the experience of needing to print something right this minute and being unable to find a printer that’s on line. IT does its level best to keep all the library’s technology functioning, but they are a finite number of human beings who are responsible for multiple systems and an enormous user population.

Then there is the question of what happens to all those printed pages. Most people in academic life find themselves burdened with more paper than they can keep track of. I once had a conversation with a mathematics professor who, when informed that he had electronic access to the journal Annals of Mathematics, said with relief, “Oh good, now I can have that chair back.”

Finally there’s the waste and environmental impact of everything that printing requires: paper (stacks and stacks of paper!), ink, toner, electrical power, the metal and plastic of the printers themselves. None of us actually want to contribute to that.

We’d have less stress, cleaner consciences, and neater apartments if we could leave our electronic resources electronic. So why do we all print so much?

One reason—a big reason—is that we generally think it’s easier to read on paper than on a screen. Reading comprehension does tend to be significantly better when subjects read material in print than it is when they read digitally.2

But we also want hard copies of our reading material so that we can write on it. After all, unless you’re using specialized equipment with your laptop (a Wacom tablet, for example) or you have a touch-screen device, it’s not as if you can just take notes on a PDF, right?

And then sometimes we have to give an article or a paper to someone else. When you’re told to hand something in, or you need to hand something out to students, you’ve got to have something to hand.

These are all rational reasons to want your information on paper. None of them, however, are quite as strong as they seem at first.

  • While it’s true that most people do read more effectively on paper, it’s also a function of the length and the complexity of the material; the difficult stuff is multi-screen digital text littered with hyperlinks, clickable illustrations, and multiple layers—not work from scholarly journals. And the comprehension difference between print and digital texts appears to be shrinking, presumably because we’re all becoming accustomed to reading on screens.3 So for a short article, or for a piece of straightforward linear prose, the penalty for reading digitally might not be significant.

    Click on this illustration to view it larger and see how a PDF can be marked up with Adobe.

  • You can take notes on a PDF! The same digital tools that you use to read PDFs (see the illustration at right) make it fairly easy to make notes on them. This example was marked up with Adobe Acrobat, which is installed on all the library computers; other PDF readers and editors can do the same or even better. Mac’s Preview, the default OSX reader, has great editing tools. On an iPhone or iPad, there’s iAnnotate. If you’re using an Android phone or tablet, try Xodo or PDFelement.
  • What if you don’t have to hand over a physical piece of paper? It’s worth a simple question: Will you accept this as a PDF via email? If you have a syllabus to give to students, they might have an easier time keeping track of it if it’s in their email or in Blackboard, rather than somewhere in the piles on their desks (or floors, or chairs…). Articles and in some cases books can be shared with links, placed on your GC Drive, or hosted on the Academic Commons.

The next time you have to go through the enormous pile of paper on your kitchen table (and we know it’s there), consider how much more free time you’d have if you’d never printed all that stuff in the first place. And the next time you reflexively hit Ctrl-P, ask yourself, Do I really have to?



  1. Please don’t.
  2. Representative examples of research on this include the following: Clemmons, C., et al. “Learning from Paper, Learning from Screens: Impact of Screen Reading and Multitasking Conditions on Reading and Writing among College Students.” International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, vol. 3, no. 4, 2013, pp. 1–27; Fisher, Douglas, and Nancy Frey. “Reading and Writing on Screen and Paper.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 62, no. 3, Dec. 2018, pp. 349–51; Singer, Lauren M., and Patricia A. Alexander. “Reading on Paper and Digitally: What the Past Decades of Empirical Research Reveal.” Review of Educational Research, vol. 87, no. 6, Dec. 2017, pp. 1007–41.
  3. See, for example, Kong, Yiren, et al. “Comparison of Reading Performance on Screen and on Paper: A Meta-Analysis.” Computers & Education, vol. 123, Aug. 2018, pp. 138–49.

About the Author

Katherine Pradt is the Adjunct Reference and Digital Outreach Librarian at the Graduate Center.