Friday, September 11, 2009

Prescient or Short-Sighted?

Cushing Academy, a private, co-ed boarding school 90 minutes outside of Boston, has made the dramatic decision to eliminate all books from its library and to create a digital "learning center." The Boston Globe reports the learning center will be populated with laptop-friendly study carrels and flat-screen TVs "that will project data from the Internet." The reference desk will be replaced with "a $50,000 coffee shop that will include a $12,000 cappuccino machine." (Cappuccino for high schoolers?) Those students actually "looking to spend more time with literature" can use one of the learning center's eighteen e-readers. Those not lucky enough to get a reader, will have to read their texts on their computers. (Would you care to read Moby Dick on a computer?)

James Tracy, Cushing's headmaster, comments, "When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books. ... We see this as a model for the 21st-century school." Aside from a few children's books and collectable works, Cushing's 20,000-volume collection of books will be given away to local schools and libraries. Liz Vezina, Cushing's librarian for 17 years, feels differently:
It makes me sad. ... I’m going to miss [the books.] I love books. I’ve grown up with them, and there’s something lost when they’re virtual. There’s a sensual side to them - the smell, the feel, the physicality of a book is something really special.
(Amen to that.) Alexander Coyle, chairman of Cushing's history department, favors a less extreme approach: "A lot us are wondering how this changes the dignity of the library, and why we can’t move to increase digital resources while keeping the books.’’


Tina said...

18 readers for 450 kids??? If I were a parent spending over $40K a year on a school that chose to make sure my child had cappuchino but not a way to privately and conveniently read a book (maybe outside under a tree or in his room?) I'd be looking for another institution of Higher (much higher) learning.

And if I was an alum, I'd be looking for a new place to leave my money. I'm all for technology, but evolution NOT revolution might be a more enlightened way to proceed.

Anonymous said...

Do not be misled by the Globe article. There is more to the story...the school's website has a more comprehensive explanation. I am an alum and am very excited about this.

Zibilee said...

I think this is a terrible idea, and I am wondering how it ever got approved! So, no more books at the library, and instead computers and televisions and coffee shoppes? This makes me feel very old, sad, and tired.

rjnagle said...

Ah, "smell of the book" nostalgia...I hear that remark a lot.

First, if everyone had a Kindle or ebook reader, they could download a lot of public domain titles and creative commons titles without any problem.

Second, I think this decision is less about digital vs. print as much as it is a recognition that a school library doesn't offer very much value any more. I recently visited my high school library (a good private one in Houston), and the library did seem like a dinosaur. Very few people; out of date sources. High school libraries don't have budgets to adequately maintain a library like that.

On the other hand, city libraries offer lots of valuable access to online databases and references guides (not to mention print books). In Houston, I was able to access an article in an obscure journal...I still can't believe it was available.

The fact is that print versions of public domain classics can be bought online for less than $5, so it's unlikely anyone will read Moby Dick on their computer.

The main advantage of school libraries is that you can stumble upon resources on a shelf. That is important. Also, the Internet is full of unreliable sources or sources which are not appropriate for a student's level.

Also, libraries can be useful places to keep reserved reading (xeroxed by the teacher)...