Friday, September 04, 2009

Bookless Library

Cushing Academy, a prep school in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, has decided to dismantle its 20,000-volume library and replace it with a $500,000 learning center, the Boston Globe reports today. According to a statement on the library's website, the Academy

is in the process of transforming our library into one that is virtually bookless by 2010. ...[The] current collection ... will soon be replaced by millions of volumes in far less space and with much richer and more powerful means of access. Terminals we call 'Portals of Civilization' will give ready access to everything humans have achieved ... Space that previously housed bound books will become community-building areas where students and teachers are encouraged to interact, with a coffee shop, faculty lounge, shared teacher and students learning learning environments, and areas for study.

The headmaster, James Tracy, believes that books are an obsolete technology. The library stacks are being demolished and replaced with "flat-screen TVs to project data from the Internet" and "laptop-friendly study carrels," according to the Globe. The reference desk is being replaced with a "$50,000 coffee shop that will include a $12,000 cappuccino machine." Cushing has also "spent $10,000 to buy 18 electronic readers made by Amazon.com and Sony." These readers will be stocked with digital materials and distributed to students. Students who don't get the readers will be expected to do their assigned readings and research on their computers. The headmaster believes that Cushing is creating a "'model for the 21st-century school.'" Some on campus don't share this vision, worrying that students reading on computers will be distracted by email and text messages and will not be able to focus on longer works. The chairman of the history department wonders "'how this changes the dignity of the library, and why we can't move to increase digital resources while keeping the books.'"

It will be interesting to see if this model catches on at other schools. The article doesn't discuss whether students will receive bibliographic instruction or any other introduction to information literacy. Nor does it discuss the role of the library staff in a bookless library, which I think is key to success. Will the staff spend its time instructing the students? Negotiating with vendors for content? Cataloging the electronic resources it purchases or subscribes to? I worry because some of these students may be entering our law schools in five or six years. Every year it gets harder to teach research skills to students who think research equals entering keywords into Google and seeing what comes up, and have no idea what an index is or does. I believe that a bookless library can be made to work, although I wouldn't much enjoy spending time in it. But I don't think it can be successful without a strong, committed staff who work closely with the students and teach them the research skills they will need in college and throughout their lives. For a related article on the future of libraries from cnn.com, click here. Thanks to Jack McNeill for forwarding this article to me.

7 comments:

john a. bailo said...

I agree with this entirely for one reason. The current paper book technology has devolved to the point of making them unreadable. The type is set not for readability, but for squeezability -- printing the fewest pages possible. The spine of paper books, even hardcovers, is ridiculous...they are so brittle, it's impossible to lay open a book and read it...you have to crack the glue to make the book stay open to your page...and you have to do this several times along reading the book!

Betsy McKenzie said...

I read this article in the Globe, Marie, and had such mixed feelings and hurt heart that I could not bear to post about it! I am glad to see that you did post it! Thank you. Mr. Bailo is obviously reading badly printed books, which it's true, is becoming more the norm. It is a pleasure to look at an older book that has been printed with care and bound nicely isn't it?

Betsy McKenzie said...

I read this article in the Globe, Marie, and had such mixed feelings and hurt heart that I could not bear to post about it! I am glad to see that you did post it! Thank you. Mr. Bailo is obviously reading badly printed books, which it's true, is becoming more the norm. It is a pleasure to look at an older book that has been printed with care and bound nicely isn't it?

Marie S. Newman said...

As Betsy says, you are probably not reading books with high-quality bindings and legible typefaces. I agree that there are a lot of poorly bound books out there, but not all books are poorly bound. Personally, I find that some online texts are not particularly readable, but accept that because sometimes that is the only way to get the information. The printed book is still the most stable format for long-term preservation of information.

Marie S. Newman said...

Here's the URL for the Boston Globe's editorial on the bookless library at Cushing: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/editorials/articles/2009/09/07/overeager_futurism_at_cushing

Betsy McKenzie said...

One of the problems with the headlong way the headmaster in the article is rushing to totally replace the books with only online resources is that the online versions of books are not totally ready to take the place of all the things that the print versions can do. Not all online versions have indexes that work with hypertext links, for example, or tables of contents. These are finding tools that today's young readers are losing and don't even know that they are being cheated. A control F search is not an adequate replacement for a good indexer's assistance in sorting through the variance of terms in the text. A good index will use the "see also" clue that can help you find the part of the text you need, even if you don't search with the exact term that the author used. This is only one example of the ways that the online books are not quite where they need to be before we make the leap entirely from print to digital. I agree that there are lots of wonderful things about digital. I do most of my searching digitally, but if I can't find it online, I often find it by going to the print indexes, and digging the old fashioned way. That's a step that younger readers such as the folks at this school, are being robbed of. Marie did a good job in the original post of explaining the nuanced answer. It's not all bad; it's just not all good, either.

Grace Mills said...

I hope that there will be librarian assistance in this 'brave new world' format. I can't remember the episode from Star Trek, the original: there was a library completely of discs.
There WAS a librarian there!