I opened my email on Friday morning to find an email from my niece about an unbelievable article in the Boston Globe. My niece, also a librarian, was disturbed by the article and the subject line, “Is this for real!?” exposed her utter confusion. The message said that she felt that she’d woken up in an alternate universe when she opened her paper that morning, and the story left her depressed and speechless.
The article, entitled “Welcome to the Library. Say Goodbye to the Books,” is about a private school, Cushing Academy, near Boston, that got rid of all of their books and replaced them with 18 Kindles and three large flat-screens displaying “data from the Internet.” They replaced the reference desk with a $50,000 coffee shop that includes a $12,000 cappuccino maker. It will no longer be called a library, but will now be referred to as a “learning center.” The headmaster of the school, James Tracy, says, “When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books.’’
I’m sure that Mr. Tracy means well. I’m sure that he didn’t give away their 20,000 volumes frivolously, and I’m sure that he believes that he’s doing his best to prepare his students for a digital future.
I posted the article on my grad school’s listserv and got a flurry of responses. The responses were mostly outraged, but a couple–from a professor, no less–were relatively, though not entirely, supportive of the school’s bookless initiative. Some of the concerns mentioned in the responses were:
- Loss of the serendipitous find. Remember looking for something specific in a library, and accidentally coming across 2 or 3 more items that would either help you with your research or teach you something new? No longer possible without books–or, not in the way it is with books, I should say. Most of the responders believed that kids would really be missing out without this factor.
- Respondents felt that they were going too far, and missing an intermediary step, where books peacefully coexist with technology. They thought that with this type of scenario, students would enjoy the best of both worlds…and this is what modern libraries today strive for, in most cases.
- Respondents were concerned that the students would be lost when they entered college. Would they know how to do real research without having had the benefit of information literacy, which is not mentioned in the article? Would they be thrown when they don’t find Kindles everywhere?
- There was concern that the “library” as a whole might become obsolete if this model were to become the norm. The professor thought that this was the overweening concern of the article, saying that a “library” is an ideological concept and not a physical structure. He believes that the ideology and the structure are becoming increasingly incompatible, and that the physical structure may not be the best “technology” to achieve “library” anymore. He thinks that librarians should get over their book bias.
- Respondents discussed their experiences with research and talked about the pros and cons of databases vs. print resources. The age of the respondents probably explains a lot about whether they preferred electronic resources over print. But the consensus, generally, is that both are needed at this point.
- There is also a fear that if other schools see this as an option, they will follow suit. But it remains to be seen if this sort of drastic measure will be successful yet.
- A respondent was eager to point out that at least they hadn’t gotten rid of any staff, which is good news in an age of lay offs and library closings. It was also mentioned that at least the school was generously funding the new “learning center,” which is also good news for the same reason.
The future is knocking on the door, and perhaps it’s only a matter of time before many libraries go this route. But, in the meantime, should we take such a drastic leap yet? Can we, or should we, take our time, easing people into the digital age? Are we experiencing the “birth pangs” of library 2.0 (apologies to Condi Rice)?
CNN writes about this recently in an article entitled, “The Future of Libraries, With or Without Books.” The article, taking a deep dive into what the library of the future might be like, using examples from today, explains how the role of a librarian might change:
In a world where information is more social and more online, librarians are becoming debate moderators, givers of technical support and community outreach coordinators.
They’re also no longer bound to the physical library, said Greenwalt, of the library in Skokie, Illinois. Librarians must venture into the digital space, where their potential patrons exist, to show them why the physical library is still necessary, he said.