Keeping traditional school libraries up to date is costly, with the constant need to acquire new books and to find space to store them. Yet for all that trouble, students roam the stacks less and less because they find it so much more efficient to work online. One school, Cushing Academy, made news last fall when it announced that it would give away most of its 20,000 books and transform its library into a digital center.
Do schools need to maintain traditional libraries? What are the educational consequences of having students read less on the printed page and more on the Web?
- James Tracy, headmaster, Cushing Academy
- Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, English professor, University of Maryland
- Liz Gray, library director, Dana Hall School
- Nicholas Carr, author, “The Big Switch”
- William Powers, author, “Hamlet’s BlackBerry”
Books in All Formats
James Tracy is headmaster of Cushing Academy, a boarding and day school in Massachusetts for grades 9 to 12, with students from 28 countries and 28 states. He holds a doctorate in history from Stanford University.
Cushing Academy’s decision to create a digital format for our library collection in no way signaled the end of books at Cushing. Rather, it reflected the way students learn and conduct research today, as well as our belief that traditional libraries must be reimagined to remain vital.
It is immaterial to us whether students use print or electronic forms to read Chaucer and Shakespeare.
Suzanne E. Thorin, the dean of libraries at Syracuse University, reached a similar conclusion when she said at the 2009 Educause Conference, “…we need to move on to a new concept of what the academic library is.” The last six months, with the explosion of e-readers and the rapid acceleration of digital technologies, have only validated for us that we are ahead of a curve that will affect every institution of learning.
A small collection of printed books no longer supports the type of research required by a 21st century curriculum. We wanted to create a library that reflected the reality of how students do research and fostered what they do, one that went beyond stacks and stacks of underutilized books.
Proximate Knowledge, Online and in Print
Matthew G. Kirschenbaum is associate professor of English at the University of Maryland and director of the campus honors program in Digital Cultures and Creativity. He is the author of“Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination.”
Do schools need libraries and do students need books? Of course they do. There are the predictable brickbats: Not everything is digitized yet, nor soon will be. A screen is less conducive to deep concentration than the stillness of the page. Bits are brittle.
Walking the stacks can be like getting a glimpse of a Web site’s source code.
I am among those who believe that in time, and maybe soon, these arguments will seem less damning than they do now. But I’m also aware of how deeply books, and metaphors of books, have penetrated our design of digital documents and digital reading — whether we’re talking about Alan Kay’s vision of a “DynaBook” in the early 1970s, a Web “page” (with its scroll bar), or the latest tablet device to hit the market.
Books and libraries are working (or living) models of knowledge formation. We need them for the same reason we need models of atoms and airplanes. They are hands-on. They are immersive. Holding a book in our hands, we orient ourselves within a larger system.
21st Century Librarians
Liz Gray, a former English teacher, is the library director at Dana Hall School, a girls’ school in Wellesley, Mass. She is the president of the board of the Association of Independent School Librarians.
Just because there’s a lot of information online does not mean that students know how to find it, nor is the freely available information always the best information or the right information. One of my primary responsibilities as a librarian is to teach information literacy skills — defining research questions, selecting and evaluating sources, avoiding plagiarism, documenting sources — and in my experience this works best face to face with students.
Libraries need to hold on to things that work well even as they keep up with new technologies.
That personal interaction is supported by the electronic availability of materials but is not replaced by it. Besides, no online collection can replace the unique collection of resources that I have built over a period of years to serve the specific needs of my students, faculty and curriculum.
My other responsibility as a school librarian is to encourage reading, which all the research shows is crucial to student success. Focused, engaged reading occurs with printed books, and far less with online material.
The Medium Matters
Nicholas Carr is the author of “The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google.” His new book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” will be published in June.
The printed word long ago lost its position of eminence in the American library. If you go into any branch of a public or school library today, you’ll almost certainly see more people staring into Internet terminals than flipping through the pages of books.
It’s hardly a surprise, then, that some educators, librarians, and parents would begin to see books — expensive, cumbersome, distressingly low-tech — as dispensable. Once an oxymoron, the “bookless library” is becoming a reality.
But if we care about the depth of our intellectual and cultural lives, we’ll see that emptying our libraries of books is not an example of progress. It’s an example of regress.
The pages of a book shield us from the distractions that bombard us during most of our waking hours. As an informational medium, the book focuses our attention, encouraging the kind of immersion in a story or an argument that promotes deep comprehension and deep learning.
A Place to Learn
William Powers is the author of the forthcoming “Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age.” The book grew out of an essay he wrote as a fellow at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
In times of rapid technological change, there’s a natural tendency to get caught up in the moment and believe the past is being completely swept away, along with all the technologies it produced. As one of the teachers at Cushing Academy put it, “This is the start of a new era.”
Books offer a place away from the inbox, where we can go to quiet our minds and reflect.
This is indeed the start of a new era. Digital devices are transforming how we live in all kinds of thrilling ways, and we’ve only begun to explore their potential. But embracing these new tools doesn’t require us to simultaneously throw out all the old ones, particularly those that continue to serve useful purposes. Who says it has to be an either-or decision?
The idea that books are outdated is based on a common misconception: the belief that new technologies automatically render existing ones obsolete, as the automobile did with the buggy whip. However, this isn’t always the case. Old technologies often handily survive the introduction of new ones, and sometimes become useful in entirely new ways.