“When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books…”

According to this Boston Globe article, the Cushing Academy, a New England prep school, is replacing all of its library books with a digital “learning center”:

This year, after having amassed a collection of more than 20,000 books, officials at the pristine campus about 90 minutes west of Boston have decided the 144-year-old school no longer needs a traditional library. The academy’s administrators have decided to discard all their books and have given away half of what stocked their sprawling stacks – the classics, novels, poetry, biographies, tomes on every subject from the humanities to the sciences. The future, they believe, is digital.

“When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,’’ said James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing and chief promoter of the bookless campus. “This isn’t ‘Fahrenheit 451’ [the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel in which books are banned]. We’re not discouraging students from reading. We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology.’’

Instead of a library, the academy is spending nearly $500,000 to create a “learning center,’’ though that is only one of the names in contention for the new space. In place of the stacks, they are spending $42,000 on three large flat-screen TVs that will project data from the Internet and $20,000 on special laptop-friendly study carrels. Where the reference desk was, they are building a $50,000 coffee shop that will include a $12,000 cappuccino machine.

And to replace those old pulpy devices that have transmitted information since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1400s, they have spent $10,000 to buy 18 electronic readers made by Amazon.com and Sony… Those who don’t have access to the electronic readers will be expected to do their research and peruse many assigned texts on their computers…

Cushing is one of the first schools in the country to abandon its books….

This is stupid on so many levels that I forced myself to wait a full day before blogging about it so I wouldn’t rant incoherently. Let me just pose a few questions:

  • Did the librarians of Cushing Academy try to explain to their headmaster that only a small percentage of works are available in digital form, and that most of those aren’t free?
  • Before discarding their 20,000 printed books, did they consider checking to see which ones aren’t available in digital form and keeping those? (In my experience many of the best reference works only exist in print form.)
  • Did they think about the fact that even if the library pays to subscribe to subscription databases and encourages the use of free public domain works (Google Books, Project Gutenberg, etc.), that still means students won’t have access to the vast majority of works published after 1922 and still under copyright?
  • What happens when students try to do research using Google Books and discover that the works they need are only available in print form and they can’t view more than a snippet of text online? Has Cushing Academy set up any kind of interlibrary loan program so students can get access to the printed books they need?
  • Will teachers at the school be limited to using only texts available in digital form?
  • Will students be instructed in how to find, use, evaluate, and cite digital sources? (Perhaps we should start calling the Cushing Academy “the Wikipedia school.”)
  • What’s going to happen when these kids go off to college and discover that they don’t have a clue how to find or use printed sources? Will they even know that there’s a whole world of knowledge not available to them on the internet?
  • Were the parents told about this in advance so they could choose to send their children to another school instead? (Especially since this year’s tuition for the Cushing Academy boarding school is over $42,000 and the day school is over $31,000.)

I could go on, but I’m going to stop now before my head explodes. I’ll leave you with an excerpt from the transcript of a talk that James Tracy (the headmaster) gave about “Libraries Beyond Books,” which is posted on the Cushing Academy website:

This is why, at Cushing Academy, where we are dedicated to forging the most far-sighted pedagogies for twenty-first century education, we have decided to be bookless within a year.

You know [holding up a book], if I look at this book I am struck by how limited it is. This is pretty bulky. I don’t mean to belittle or disparage it. I love books, and I love the representation of culture that they embody, but, from an information perspective, this is a very, very bulky way to reposit data by today’s standards.

We should be able to hold not only this book but thousands of others in one hand. So Cushing has decided to go from a library that right now is a warehouse of 20,000 books shelved in old technology to a library of millions of books utilizing far less space and with much richer and more powerful means of accessing that information. If I want to research all the references to Churchill just in our little 20,000 volume library, it’s going to take me months and years, but I can now data mine every reference to Churchill in 7 million volumes in a matter of seconds using search engines. Moreover, we find from a check of the records that our students aren’t really using the books extensively for research, anyway. They’re already doing most of that online, and, in fact, they are checking out more music and films than books from the Cushing library.

I’ll tell you that, with the financial crisis, as a Headmaster, I no longer see the point of maintaining this huge warehouse of underutilized space that we call a library. Better to free up that space while at the same time expanding by many orders of magnitude the school community’s access to information, literature, art, music via terminals that I term “Portals to Civilization.”

10 responses to ““When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books…”

  1. A hybridized library of print and digital is one thing, but scrapping all the books *now*? I agree that the students will be at a silly disadvantage when they learn that “the book” will remain necessary for quite a while, still.

  2. <>

    What the hell are the people of Cushing smoking?

  3. I am gobsmakced and speechless. And I really, really, want to know how the headmaster would answer your questions, Lisa.

  4. Idiots. So anyway, where’s the Cushing book sale?

  5. You know interlibrary loan is based on both parties loaning books–whoops!

    And $12,000 for a fancy coffee machine!

  6. Today’s digital-information treasure-trove is indeed marvelous, and should be taken advantage of by any working Library or educational institution.

    But doing away with books disregards the importance of Serendipity in the development of the intellectual process. All-digital may be fine for those students/minds that are satisfied with — and have no inclination to progress beyond — a set and mechanical framework. But — I have to resort, here, to the anecdotal and idiosyncratic of my own experience — it greatly reduces the chance of picking up, or glancing into, “the wrong book” and discovering a life-changing (probably for the better) Experience. It does a serious disservice, I think, to the — perhaps only 10 or 20 % of — students whose minds are capable of going beyond the established framework, but those people are important to the development of our culture.

  7. Books don’t require electricity. No Blue Screens of Death or Kernel Panics. Also, you can drop them from high places.

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  9. As someone who is going through a bit of a research!fail at the moment* — entirely because things I want are _not_ available on the internet — this makes me want to scream.

    * Unavailable on the internet: _A Persian at the Court of King George: Diary of Mirza Abul Hassan Khan, 1809-10_. I wouldn’t mind having the entirely of the Stith-Thompson Motif Index online either.

  10. As we move forward in technology it is crucial not to forget our intellectual forebears. Since I cut my academic teeth on clay tablets (some of which are being digitized and made available online), I feel this dismissal of traditional print forms rather keenly. If our children are to be at all intellectually curious about where we have come from, we must confront them with print material, and, whenever possible, trips to the museum to see vellum, papyrus, and even humble clay.