Saturday, November 06, 2010

Update on Cushing Academy - The private school library that "dumped its books"

The Boston Globe ran another story updating its readers on Cushing Academy. In September, 2009, the Globe reported (and we blogged) about this story (here is a follow-up story from that time, when a big part of the story seemed to focus on the expensive coffee machine that was going into the library space). The headmaster (or principal), James Tracy, decided to get rid of nearly all of the books, and spend more money on databases. The space that had been taken up with shelving became more open space, for group seating, for computer use and for a coffee bar. The databases are linked with a federated search engine. E-books are included. The students are instructed in searches and introduced to the databases they will need for a class, but then left to explore on their own.

The library is now more heavily used than ever. The school has hired another librarian since the re-organization. I like this, and think most librarians will not be surprised. The focus we have is increasingly on service, and less on the materials. People need more help sorting and choosing from the huge amounts of information that is too easily found now. Before, it was the other extreme, where gathering the data was the difficulty, and the skill and value of the library and librarians was in sorting, choosing and housing the best information for the patrons.

And yet, if you follow the link to the newer Globe article, you will find that the Cushing Academy has not quite abandoned books, and even the students still like books, and speak a bit wistfully about them. You also will read that none of the other private prep schools in the area have followed Cushing's lead in re-furbishing their libraries. Phillips Academy and Phillips Exeter are keeping their library books, thank you. Headmaster Tracy has had interested inquiries from Harvard Law School, University of Virginia libraries, Syracuse, a rural public school in West Virginia, and UNESCO. There is not much explanation about what those inquiries are leading to. It is interesting that the furor has died down, and the students are very happy with the library. But it is also interesting that the model is not really catching fire at this point and spreading much, either. As the article quotes Harvard's librarian Robert Darnton, “Libraries must advance on two fronts — digital and analogue. To concentrate on one at the expense of the other would be a mistake. The idea that printed books are in decline and will go away is just plain wrong.’’ We are still at that hybrid point, if we will ever reach a point where reading will become completely digital, we have not gotten there yet. The print format still has many points to recommend it, and many situations in which it is still superior, or perhaps the only way to proceed. I was recently at a dinner where a different Harvard librarian was invited to speak and she did a wonderful job of articulately, yet succinctly, explaining to a non-librarian crowd why libraries (at least non-science and non-medical) libraries will continue to need large buildings for at least the next 20 years or more. That is to say, why we will still be dealing with books for that long. There are just so many things that have not yet been digitized yet, and will cost so much to get digitized, that it will take a long time to get them all into the computers, and do it well. In some fields, there are things that may never be digitized -- maybe nobody will ever fund it, or get around to doing it, or find it.

But there is also the dimension of the users' space in libraries. The students' space (or patrons' space). Libraries have a very important role as social hubs and as leverages for people. Many children of immigrants, many autodidacts have written movingly about the role of school and public libraries in their lives. The libraries leverage the information, the literacy in the books multiple times for the readers. They leverage literacy and culture, and civilization throughout the community. In the same way, libraries leverage the space and facilities they offer: photocopiers, scanners, computers, databases, information, multiple times throughout the community to build the economy and allow people to build their careers and start businesses. In a tough economy, libraries are essential boosters to their communities. I think this is true for school libraries, where students and recent grads (or even older alumni) come in to work on their resumes, and job searches. I know my law school has set aside two alumni meeting rooms for offices and our library consciously collects for alumni use. Many state law schools have that as part of their mission as well, and often also collect to support public use in addition. Libraries should maybe try to figure how much they contribute to the economy or at least manage in cost savings for different patron bases or community groups.

The decoration for this blog post is a photo of the library at the Cushing Academy, from the Boston Globe article. I can't help but notice that there are 2 people with laptops and 1 person with a book.

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