mistakes were made, books were removed

This story has been making the rounds today. Administrators of the Cushing Academy in Western MA have decided that their library doesn’t need books anymore, so they’ve gotten rid of them. The big story, with photo, in the Boston Globe pretty such assures that this story will spread like wildfire. I can’t even imagine what it must feel like to be the director of the library at Cushing and have this decision made for you.

Keith Michael Fiels from ALA had a statement that was in the article

“Unless every student has a Kindle and an unlimited budget, I don’t see how that need is going to be met,’’ Fiels said. “Books are not a waste of space, and they won’t be until a digital book can tolerate as much sand, survive a coffee spill, and have unlimited power. When that happens, there will be next to no difference between that and a book.’’

I’m not saying, personally, that this may not be the way of the future for libraries. And I’m also not saying that you might not be able to do an awful lot of research via online texts — one of the departments in favor of this move is the math department, for example — and that these sorts of moves will have to be made if we want to get from where we are now to the library of the future. But, I’m still not feeling that this sort of “Eh the books were taking up too much space” move is really the way to go. Considering reliable sources is crucial, and platforms like ??? ?? ??? emphasize the importance of trustworthiness. Calling a book “pretty bulky” is not really a good argument for why you shouldn’t have them. You can read this speech by James Tracy talking about his vision of a future world.

I want to argue today that librarians must be their own internal disruptors, else they will become dinosaurs. This need not mean the end of libraries, but it is essential that, for libraries to have any meaningful function twenty-five years hence, they must morph into a radically different vehicle for accessing ideas and information.

Interesting, then, that librarians were not the force behind this move. There are a few more comments from library director Liz Vezina over at the Fine Books Magazine blog. Oddly if you read that post, you’ll notice that they mention Hampshire College (my alma mater) as trying this experiment once before. I don’t know what happened, there were plenty of books in the library when I was there.

The Boston Globe makes a lot out of the fact that there will be a $12,000 cappucino machine in the former reference area, but doesn’t dwell nearly long enough on the school’s plan to purchase eighteen “readers” to basically satisfy the literature needs of an entire school. I feel that it’s the sort of thing that becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy. Let me know what you think.

Note: and in the “great minds think alike and often at the same time” there’s some discussion of this going on at MetaFilter as well. Feel free to comment over there if you’re a member.

36 thoughts on “mistakes were made, books were removed

  1. I read this story and thought the idea was cool but the execution seemed a bit hasty. Yes, this is ultimately the future of libraries, but e-readers and e-books are nowhere near standardized. I think they’re going to run into a lot of compatibility issues and I worry about them investing in this technology so early on. Who knows, in 3 years Kindles may not be in production and then what?
    Also, why do high schoolers need a $12,000 espresso machine?? I think they’d much prefer a slurpie machine or some energy drink vending machines.

  2. Thought you’d find it interesting that when I tweeted this post, bit.ly didn’t like it:

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    Bad bit.ly!

  3. I’m in an area where having put two crappy mp3 players in circulation for our downloadable content puts my library on the “cutting edge,” so this whole thing amuses/stuns me. And the $12,000 espresso machine makes me think that someone in the administration has been reading too many Gossip Girl books (though probably not on a Kindle).

    “Unless every student has a Kindle and an unlimited budget, I don’t see how that need is going to be met,’’ Fiels said. Um, ding ding ding ding! This is a private boarding school, and this whole thing smacks of rampant consumerism, not solely the desire to be leading the charge into the technological age of libraries. Wanting your library to offer the latest technology does not mean that you have to just throw out all the books, for Pete’s sake! Books and technology are not mutually exclusive. Or at least, they shouldn’t be.

  4. During times like these I become a bit disgusted with how things are going. The current craze of getting rid of books is, to me, utter nonsense. While I have encountered many libraries that are becoming too cluttered and, therefore, it is becoming too costly to run the library, the notion that the solution is “get rid of all/most books” seems to be the trendy albeit foolish decision. In analyzing many of these overcrowded libraries I have found that the problem can usually be solved by either A) rewrite/analyze the weeding policy and enforce a more clear-cut plan or B) some libraries (mainly academic) need to check their egos at the door and not try to contain every copy of every book in order to be considered the most well stocked research library in the area. And the fact that the library that the article is about touts a fancy 5 figures espresso machine is the most telling highlight of where the administration’s mind is at.

  5. While I don’t have any problem with e-books, I just have to question the reasoning and execution of this plan. Not to mention the fact that the whole concept of fiction reading seems to be thrown out the window here if they are only going to have a few devices for student reading.

    What about literacy promotion, book talks, student sharing of books, memoirs, autobiographies, audiobooks, playaways, etc?

    Sure there are a lot of considerations and questions about how to balance print and electronic materials, but this is hardly the way to approach it!

  6. I hear pretty much this same idea stated to me regularly by friends and family who think my profession is a sinking ship, but I can’t help but question the practicalities of such a swift transition. Most significantly: most of the professional and commercial world is still deeply entrenched in print resources. Are we preparing our students for the future if they’re largely unfamiliar with navigating a physical book. Search terms aren’t going to do them any good (Google Books Search doesn’t count).

    Besides, one of the absolute best things about a physical collection of books is browsing to explore. Bookstores could never get away with such a change; it would undermine the very culture and experience.

  7. Yeah, this is way to early. The best analogy I could think of would be a video store in the mid-80s trashing all their VHS tapes and switching to laserdisc. There’s no guarantee that any of the technologies currently used have any long-lasting support (although in fairness the fact that the Kindle is an Amazon product means it has an upper hand). There are so many books, though, that aren’t currently available for the Kindle. Also, it seems to me that once you get rid of the books, the library really has lost its function. The whole point of a library is to *be* a collection of resources that would be unwieldy for one individual to own. No such condition exists for a digital-only library. So there’s no point for the library to exist in that case. There’s nothing to read, nothing to check out (oooh, 18 Kindles. big deal.), just a few librarians I guess (who of course are useful, but less useful when anything they are going to show you is going to be on your laptop; might as well just use email).

    I guess what I’m saying is once you remove the books entirely I fail to see the need for any kind of library building whatsoever. You end up with a glorified study hall.

    The expenditures are what really blow me away. It’s pretty clear that the goal isn’t to save money, in which case I can only assume it’s a desire to be edgy, or the schoolmaster has an antipathy towards books.

  8. The bit.ly story is interesting. Jessamyn, please let us know how things turned out when the story is complete.

  9. You can’t give an e-book to a charity (thrift) shop, you can’t release it into the wild and I have yet to see any device that I would want to snuggle in bed with to read the latest chic lit (not that I do – it’s fantasy for my relaxation reading but you get the point). The British Library has three different readers for visitors to try out and they can keep them as far as I’m concerned!

  10. Seems to me that the school’s administration is pandering to the elite: oooh, look, shiny toys!

    We should hope that some of those “elite” parents have a CLUE that learning takes place when students have many opportunities to interact with a variety of materials. Limiting them to a specific learning tool (e-books) is irresponsible for more reasons than I can articulate now.

    I feel for the librarians there. Tough situation.

  11. Speaking of Hampshire, in our college days (mid-to-late eighties) I remember looking up linguistics journal articles in our nifty five-college online catalog and then going over to the 18-story library high-rise at UMass to retrieve them. Whenever I took some decade(s)-old journal off those shelves I was always struck by the idea that no one had probably ever taken that particular journal out and no one was likely to ever take it out again. And yet there it was, waiting for me amongst 18 effectively identical Borgesian floors of academic journals that someone might or might not look at at some point or other. Even at the time, it seemed simultaneously wonderful and wasteful.

    I keep thinking that there’s got to be some sort of sweet spot between large, unwieldy stacks of paper that most people will never look at and a barren, book-less “learning center”.

    Of course many academic journals don’t even have a print edition any more so it’s not a totally relevant comparison, but reading about the Cushing situation certainly made me think of it.

  12. The quote attributed to Shelby Foote comes to mind: “A university [or in this instance, an academy] is just a group of buildings gathered around a library.” So when the books are gone, will the building soon follow? What will be at the heart of the university or academy of the future- a smartphone and a laptop?

    Also, it seems as if there could be a large collection development (if that term still applies in this age) and administrative challenge here in switching from print or some combination of print and electronic to an electronic-only “collection”. There are lots of issues around content coverage, business terms, simultaneous access, subscription and/or “perpetual access”, technology/platform evolution, the dependence upon outside/3rd party vendors, etc. etc. etc. Wow if it were me, and as inevitable as it all might be, I would want to manage this kind of change much more deliberately (and thoughtfully).

  13. I am happy to have found your blog. I just started the Masters program for library/information science and technology one week ago and was wondering about the future of books. For me personally, I love the feel of a book in my hands. While it is true that it won’t fit in my purse, nor will several pack well, a book is constant and forever. It is comfort food. I have the kindle app on my i-touch, I even had a Sony Reader, which is now obsolete because I have a 64 bit Vista. But my books, now those are not technology-dependent. Hooray! As an aside, do you have any advice for someone just starting school?

  14. I’m just starting classes to get my school librarian endorsement. I imagine this will come up for discussion in my collection development class! I find it strange that, when they looked at the circulation numbers and saw that only 48 books had been checked out, the administrators decided the problem was with the books. I did my student teaching at a small rural school and their circulation numbers were much higher. At least half of my freshmen brought books to class for reading in their spare time. It was beautiful. The problem is not that books are outdated technology and should be thrown out. The problem is that this “elite” school has failed to create a culture which values literature and literacy. If I were a parent looking for a private school for my children, this one would definitely not make the list.

  15. A digital library is undoubtedly the future. But the hasty and uncalculated move of the school administration is just another desperate attempt to make the news. Sort of be on the lead. But they totally erred when they spent those high figures on daring do and flashy stuff that wont contribute to the immediate knowledge needs of the students and instead buy only 18 kindles and Sony readers. If they are keen on making the news they should have bought a kindle for each student and dedicate individual budgets so that students can walk into the digital world and shop for books with the same freedom they browse shelves in a library. The objectives may be noble. But, I am afraid the results will be restricting students access to information.

  16. And if my kid went there, I’d decide he no longer needed that school.

  17. What happens when the battery dies or the power goes off?? That’s the good thing about paper copies yo can read them no matter what is going on.

  18. i am a devoted e-book fan. but. what if cushing academy’s idea doesn’t work? how much will it cost them to change their minds and re-acquire print?

    the answer to ‘what if the battery dies or the power goes off’ can be applied to a lot of things, and was the obvious first thing people thought of in the early days of library automation, yet libraries have automated, and that’s been fine. the benefits have far outweighed the costs. electronic resources, though, were always problematic until remote access, on-site wifi, and unlimited user licenses came into being, permitting individuals to access those resources using *their own hardware*.

    as cited in the piece above: until every student has an e-book reader and an unlimited book buying budget (or a device that will permit electronic borrowing); and until all that is available in print is available electronically, it’s more than a little nutty to just dump print. especially now, when e-book/e-reader technology is still really expensive, and none of the business models have even been worked out. geez. look at overdrive and netlibrary. *those* systems haven’t been hammered out yet either, and they’ve been around for over ten years.

    and what the heck is this ‘libraries must be their own disruptors’-cr@p? when was the last time that person visited a library? 1955? decisions informed only by assumptions drive me crazy.

  19. I though that this idea is very nice and interesting,but i have confusion that if librarian not purchases book than what happen with libraries?

  20. The thing that worries me most about this is short-sighted administrators seeing this and saying, “Well, look what this school in Massachusetts did. Why can’t we follow suit?” I think I could argue them down in my current job, but in my previous position, where my supervisor was clearly of the mind that “everything students need, they can find on the Internet,” that probably wouldn’t be the case.

  21. For the record, my comments were quite freely edited.

    On one hand, the reporter was interested in a broad overview of my thoughts on the long term future of books. What he did not quote were my concerns that eliminating books under the guise of being “progressive”, without a plan for adequately meeting the reading interests of Cushing students, was not in the best interests of those students. Harry Potter should be evidence enough that recreational reading of books is still very big, and independant reading has a significant impact on student achievement, bith short and long term.

    While I did not know it at the time, I now understand that the school will be providing 18 Kindles to meet the needs of 400 students! This is not a plan, it’s a disater for these kids.

  22. I’m also curious how the Kindles will be administered. Does the student get to ask for the e-books he/she needs on them and the librarian gets them? Is the school paying for them? Or is the student paying for each book? If so, does the school have the right to monitor what is on those Kindles while they’re checked out or in use? And once something is bought for that Kindle, does it just stay on there, regardless of who purchased it?

    I have all sorts of questions about this. I mean, hey, who wouldn’t want a Kindle? But by my count, they’re about 382 shy, and I’m curious how long they’ll last and what problems will crop up.

  23. Sad to hear that Cushing Academy decided to eliminate physical books. I think they will wind-up regretting that decision.

    Although digital books are becoming more common, I think there will always be a market for paper-and-ink (physical) books. As the article noted, it’s hard to curl-up in bed with a digital book, or take a digital book to the beach with sand and waves. I hope physical books will always exist in libraries. Hard to imagine libraries without them.

  24. My first reaction to the Cushing Academy story was to wonder what type of electronic resources the Cushing Academy Library made available before management decided to go e-book only. My guess is that Cushing was not acquiring and making available the web-delivered databases, ejournals, reference books, etc., made available in most libraries.

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