Some of the folks on the CREC music email list are discussing the pros and cons of physical psalters and hymnbooks. I decided to weigh in…
Growing up in Moscow, I got used to singing out of the Cantus Christi. My copy (of the venerable blue variety) got so worn over the years that its spine is currently being held together by duct tape. I understand the practical advantages of singing from a bulletin or even a projector screen during worship, but my experience demonstrates some of the advantages of using a hymnal over time, both in worship and in casual settings.
For one thing, there’s the fact that over time the physical hymnal became a familiar object. Even when I didn’t remember page numbers, I remembered generally where in the book a particular hymn or psalm was because I knew what the two halves of the book felt like in my hands when I was singing that one. (Now that I think of it, hymns near the middle of the book may have been more popular simply because the book was easier to hold when it was open to that position.) I even remember the location of certain hymns because of the communion wine stains on the edge of the page.
Another benefit of having a common physical hymnal was that any gathering of church members could grab a few copies and have an impromptu psalm/hymn sing. Having sung all the same stuff for years, we knew what we knew and what we liked. It was a treat when we had a group skilled enough to sing one of the fugue tunes (e.g., ‘Tis By Thy Strength), and when we didn’t, we knew that there were simpler crowd-pleasers available. Whether hanging out in the park or in a friend’s living room, we always had the option of singing together. One hymn would remind someone of another favorite and we could all flip to that page and give it the old college try. It was even better if half the group knew the hymn and the other half didn’t, since that gave you the chance to learn a new tune. I always hoped that eventually I’d know every song in the Cantus. The physical book gave me something to shoot for.
Lastly (for now), a physical book gives you the magical ability to browse. Digital editions are great for finding something when you know what you’re looking for, but if you’re hanging out at the piano on a Sunday afternoon, plinking away, you definitely want a physical hymnal to flip through.