A Library Without Books

The other day, I came across an article that really shocked me. The Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, MA has decided to eliminate their twenty-thousand book library in favor of a digital one. According to the article, they have spent $500,000 to transform the library into a ‘learning center’ which will be outfitted with several widescreen televisions to display data from the internet and can interface with student laptops, while they have purchased 18 e-book readers (Most likely the Kindle and Sony Reader) which will have access to a large digital library. To cap it off, a coffee shop is being built in place of the circulation desk, including a $12,000 cappuccino machine.

While this really annoys me, I can see why the change is being made. The internet is becoming far more prevalent in our lives, and e-books are going to be on the rise with the successes of Amazon.com’s Kindle device and other similar brands. The school is certainly making a logical, and enormously expensive effort to modernize their library to tap into these new changes in how education might go. With this upgrade, students will have access to quite a lot of material.

There are a large number of flaws with this idea, however. The first thing that came to mind for me was what happens during a prolonged power outage? My iPhone, with an e-book reader will barely last a day as I use it, and in a situation such as that, it’s going to be going off until I can plug it in. While I can understand the desire to switch to a completely digital library, I can’t understand why this would include eliminating the traditional stacks and contents of the library.

This doesn’t necessarily stem from a desire to keep books because of the tactile feel and ease of reading – that is certainly a consideration, but that is not the sole virtue of keeping books on the shelves. The biggest concern that the teachers should feel here is the missed opportunities for students to utilize a working library in all aspects – being able to accurately locate a volume on the shelves, how to conduct searches, and simply browsing the shelves for related content. These are skills, especially in the humanities and social studies fields that will be vital for students to learn, for one simple reason: there are many archives and libraries with content that is not digitalized, and nor will it ever be, because of the sheer volume. Computers have successfully been integrated into libraries for years now – they are an invaluable resource for tracking books and their locations throughout a library. I myself have my own tracking software on my computer at home, called BookDB.

The introduction of online shopping and browsing, such as like on Amazon.com or BN.com, is something that has never really felt comparable to actually going into a bookstore and browsing the shelves. I’ve come across numerous books, some of which I never would have come across on my own by just browsing the web pages for books. With every advance, you lose something in the process. Nostalgia aside, presence on a shelf can also make or break an author.

What bothers me more is the attitude that books are unimportant. Books are easily one of the most accessible methods in which to introduce a person to reading, as opposed to an e-reader, which is not only expensive, but is a largely inaccessible technology for most out there – you need an internet connection, computer, amazon.com account, and so forth. While the successes of the Kindle are well known, proving that there is a market for it, there is a portion of the population that may not have ready access to something like this. People who aren’t inclined to read aren’t going to go out and go through all the steps, as opposed to a bookstore, where they might browse the shelves and pick up a cheap paperback book.

Another problem with internet only and digital databases is the tendency to rely far too heavily on information gleaned from the websites. Coming from background with a Master’s Degree from an online university and working for the same school, I’ve seen a number of examples of students utilizing Wikipedia as a credible source, as well as other online websites, without carefully scrutinizing or questioning them. Websites such as Wikipedia certainly has their places in the world – it’s a fantastic resource for any number of facts, but due to the nature of its existence, it is hard to trust much of it beyond a glance. Online databases are much more reliable, such as JSTOR, but they can be difficult to access and aren’t universal to much of the general public, unlike libraries or public archives.

My own experience with online and digital learning was a positive one, but the experience was not completely digitally based. Norwich University’s School of Graduate Studies MMH program switched from digital readings to printed coursepacks to alleviate the burden on students printing out everything, and continued throughout to issue books each course. I personally found being able to sit down with a hard copy reading was much easier on my eyes, allowed me to take copious notes in the margins, and were something I could turn to without having to restart my computer after I went to bed.

I personally wouldn’t trade books for anything digital. The lesson here that needs to be remembered is that hardcopy books and digital readings are both delivery methods that bring information to a reader, who then does with it what they will. Physical books have the inherent advantage, in my opinion because they are cheaper for the consumer, easier to handle and don’t require additional hardware to access. E-books are a fantastic idea to supplement a student body, either through digital textbooks that could be easily updated and distributed, but not as a replacement to a library system in place. Libraries are far more than just for pleasure reading – they serve a scholarly interest, and their use is something that needs to be taught. Plus, walking around stacks of books is just an outstanding way to get carried away.