Libraries…who needs ’em? That seems to be the meme that’s floating about the mainstream media today. There’s the front page article in this morning’s Boston Globe about Cushing Academy’s (rather hasty) decision to give away its book collection in favor of laptops, Amazon.com Kindles and..well..the Internet. Then there’s this article from CNN.com about “Library 2.0” –a more orderly transformation of libraries from places to get books to community knowledge centers and forums where citizens can learn, debate and generally inform themselves — through hardcopy, digital media, whatever.
Its hard to argue with the CNN piece, which talks about the inevitable mission creep for public and private libraries, as more and more print information goes online through Google Books and publishers of all stripes skip hardcopy altogether and shift to e-books and digital publishing as a way to reach their audience.
It’s harder to make sense of Cushing academy’s decision to just ditch its 20,000 volume collection in favor of a hodge podge of digital alternatives. According to the Globe article by David Abel, the Ashburnham private school will be replacing the collection with a $500,000 “learning center,’’including “$42,000 for three large flat-screen TVs that will project data from the Internet, and $20,000 on special laptop-friendly study carrels.” The school will spend $50,000 to build a coffee shop that will include a $12,000 cappuccino machine. Frankly, Cushing Academy’s plans sound like the frothings of some dizzy Starbucks or Borders marketing executive let off his leash. “Let them eat scones!” if you will. The idea of stacks of reference books and literature replaced with plasma TVs and an cappuccino bar just seems ditsy. Let’s put it this way, if visionaries like Andrew Carnegie thought that American society would be advanced by the construction of coffee bars, rather than libraries, then he would have put his money into building them.
I also take a dim view of the headmaster James Tracy’s comment that libraries and their stacks are ““outdated technology, like scrolls before books,’’ which sounds remarkably like the arguments civic leaders across the country used to justify things like the willy-nilly dismantling of street car lines in favor of “new technology” like automobiles –only to run into problems like urban decay, suburban sprawl, traffic and pollution. As for his statement that “we’re not discouraging students from reading. We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology” — am I alone in wondering what the heck “shaping emerging trends and optimize technology” means? As if tiny Cushing Academy is somehow going to shape global technology adoption trends! Abel does a good job throwing cold water on Headmaster Tracy’s vision — wondering about the cost and durability of devices like the Kindle compared to paper books which – last time I checked – can run for 3,000 years without requiring new batteries.
A question for Cushing Academy is “What are you throwing away, exactly?” Is the information that’s being discarded freely available online? Is it true that a student researching a given topic can find the same depth and quality of information on that topic through Google that was available in your stacks? Its a difficult question to answer, which is probably why nobody’s bothering to ask it.
A larger question for Cushing and other communities/institutions like it is “What are you throwing away, exactly?” Do you actually know whether the information you’re getting rid of is available online? Is it true that a student researching a given topic can find the same depth and quality of information on that topic through Google that was available in your stacks? Its a difficult question to answer, which is probably why nobody’s bothering to ask it. In the end, I’m not convinced by Tracy’s assurance that “this isn’t Fahrenheit 451.” In fact, Cushing’s decision to do away with printed works and replace them with huge plasma screens and mindless entertainment (a coffee bar) is eerily like Ray Bradbury’s dystopian vision of the future. It’s all the more poignent given Bradbury’s staunch defense of the (old fashioned) libraries in his local community. Its funny, in my work as a technology reporter and analyst, I’ve noticed that the people who know the least about technology are often those who are the most enthused about its ability to transform institutions and behaviors. In this case, I think Cushing Academy may well look back in 10 years and regret the loss of its collection, in the same way that other “onward to the future” organizations and communities have come to regret their failure to look past “newness” and take stock of the inherant value of what they already possessed.