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.