DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Oct 2 2009

Library of the Future?

by Jesse M

library-without-books “When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books.’’

So says James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing Academy, a prep school located west of Boston with a student population of about 420. It is a radical statement, and one which is being followed to what some would consider a radical conclusion: the gradual transition from a 20,000 volume collection to a mostly bookless, digital library. Despite the small size of the school, the announcement has made waves throughout the library world ever since being reported on by The Boston Globe on September 4. Much of the reaction has been negative. Jessamyn West of Librarian.net writes that she is “skeptical”” of the idea. Commenting on the school’s decision to spend $10,000 to purchase 18 Kindle Readers to replace the library’s collection of books, Keith Michael Fiels, executive director of the American Library Association, worried that “unless every student has a Kindle and an unlimited budget, I don’t see how that need is going to be met.’’ Author Nicholas Basbanes had very little positive to say in an article for finebooksmagazine.com entitled Philistines at the Gate, wherein he suggested that college admission officers might look askance at an application from a student at a school “that does not require its students to read books at all”.

Criticism of the plan is not limited to those outside of Cushing. Liz Vezina, Director of the Fisher-Watkins Library and librarian at Cushing for 17 years, expressed dismay. “I’m going to miss them…there’s something lost when they’re virtual…the smell, the feel, the physicality of a book is something really special.’’

Despite such concerns, Cushing has continued to press forward with the two year plan to digitize the library. James Tracy has outlined his philosophy behind the transition, and his vision of the future and the place of libraries in it, in an essay titled “Libraries Beyond Books: A Call for New Paradigms”. In it, he argues that compared to new, digital methods of accessing information, a book is a “very, very bulky way to reposit data”. He points out that most of his students rarely consult the tomes in the library for research, instead utilizing the internet. Even reading books for pleasure seems to be a declining pastime for students; according to Tracy, “they are checking out more music and films than books”. Since the publication of the Boston Globe article and the subsequent uproar, Tracy has posted an update on the matter, responding to various criticisms. He reminds detractors that Cushing is not going bookless, but rather making the decision to offer a much greater selection of material via an electronic medium rather than a print one. Additionally he mentions that many of the books selected for withdrawal remain on campus as part of departmental collections and in faculty offices, with the remainder being donated to local schools.

While Cushing academy may be the first secondary school to make the decision to go digital, several college libraries have already embraced the trend, including the former undergraduate library at the University of Texas, now renamed the Flawn Academic Center. Its announcement of the transition in 2005 was met with similar concern. One blogger wondered, slightly tongue-in-cheek, “how easy is it to re-read, reflect and relax with a website?”. The same article quoted Judy Ashcroft, director of the Instructional Innovation and Assessment division at UT, who defended the transition with a similar argument to the one which James Tracy would make four years later; “Libraries are about information and books were simply a way that information was packaged. But more information is being packaged online and we have a duty to provide access to [it].”

What do you think? I have to admit to finding merit in some of the arguments made by Headmaster Tracy, but there is a part of me that recoils from the idea of replacing so many books with so few electronic reading devices. Without even considering the (to my mind) considerable merit of comments like Liz Vezina’s regarding the sensual qualities of books, I believe Keith Michael Fiels makes an excellent point when he argues “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.”

Here at DCPL, we thankfully have no plans to replace our print collections with kindle readers (as far as I’m aware!). And yet, we do offer a multitude of digital services (including eAudiobooks, podcasts, and access to reference databases) through the DCPL eLibrary.

If you are interested in learning more about the technologies enabling this transition to digital, you might enjoy this somewhat dated but still interesting article from 2004 discussing some specific gadgets.

Additionally, those interested in a discussion of the issues of accessibility and control which are developing as the written word gets digitized and becomes available through such providers as Google should check out the September 15th episode of Talk of the Nation, a call in radio program on NPR.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Nolan R October 2, 2009 at 3:10 PM

Also from 2004, here’s an article from Times Online called, “Paradise is paper, vellum and dust: Libraries will survive the digital revolution because they are places of sensuality and power.” The article was in response to Google’s plan to digitize books.

Jnai W October 5, 2009 at 11:35 AM

This is a wonderful post, Jesse! This is kind of a disheartening prospect. Technology is powerful, useful and now readily available to the masses but can it really supplant the tangibility and physicality of books? Also, I really like the quote in Nolan’s comment; spoken like a true bibliophile!

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