There, I Said It: A Risky Blog Post

Today Twitter has been abuzz with discussion of the Cushing School (MA) library going bookless. As I read the Twitter posts I find myself feeling a bit disconcerted by their lamenting nature. While yes, I understand that a school library moving to a no books model is a drastic thing to do. And, while I understand that a library needs to almost always provide a combination of print and digital resources, I wonder how can we respond on Twitter, blogs, editorials in newspapers, etc. to this topic thoughtfully without sounding like a group of whining traditionalists? (There, I said it.)

What I would love to read, and Twitter really isn’t the platform for this, but this blog is, is more of an analysis of the pros and cons of this story. Questions I have after reading the Boston Globe article include:

  • What had been going on with the school library before this? Was there a history of administration undermining the library? Why this move now?
  • How are librarians in the school involved in the change? A librarian quoted in the article talks about her sadness about the change, but did she get a chance to help make some of the decisions? Why? Why not?
  • What about the students? The article makes it sound like they don’t read books at all, but what is the real story? Where are they getting their books, what are they reading in any format?

There are other questions I have but those are a few at the top of my head. What I would love to hear from blog readers are your questions and answers related to this story. What do you think might be a better approach for a school to take to support students and teachers through the library while integrating and acknowledging new technologies? What are the positives of going bookless? (Are there any?) How are you working proactively to guarantee that you have a say about what happens in your library? How might you respond in a way that will be heard and understood to this kind of action in your community? How can librarians respond to these situations in a positive and informative way?

It seems to me if we lament we don’t get anywhere. But, if we ask provocative questions and if we support new ideas and help to frame those ideas, then perhaps we have better opportunities to have an impact on what happens in our libraries and communities.

Go ahead, take a risk, and tell me and other readers what you think.

About Linda W Braun

Linda W Braun is a YALSA Past President, the YALSA CE Consultant, and a learning consultant/project management coordinator at LEO: Librarians & Educators Online.
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19 Comments

  1. What I wonder about is the quality of the books and services provided at the school’s library. If only 40some books checked out last year, was it because teens are getting books elsewhere, because they don’t read much, or because the books available were mostly “classics” or outdated fiction?

  2. the 40something books was a snapshot of one day at the library: ” School officials said when they checked library records one day last spring only 48 books had been checked out, and 30 of those were children’s books.” Also note that while this is a 9 -12 school, the insistence (by the newspaper? by the school?) of calling the reading material “children’s books,” as if they were reading, well, easy readers or some such instead of John Green. So, for 450 students, 1 in 10 checked out a book that day. I wonder what the percentage is for other schools and libraries?

    Not all books are digital yet; why, then, the decision to go digital? Are they aware of that? Or did they figure the digital ones are the only ones that matter? There are many, many unanswered questions here. Why only 18 electronic readers? Do other students have their own? Can we assume that because this is a private school that there is no one there who would have a problem, visually or otherwise, with the reader? So before, 45 students came into the library on one day looking for books — under this system, only 18 at a time are satisified. What is going on that is not reported, in terms of access?

    The sum of “millions of books” is mentioned. What is Tracy’s source for this figure? Project Gutenberg? The School’s website still reflects the old library information, so it’s impossible to know what these millions of titles are and the cost.

    Digital and traditional books can co-exist. That this school is dumping the baby with the bathwater is of concern, because it seems not well thought out. And, if it was, I would love to know their data and sources for making the decision, rather than book took up too much room & “everything” is digital, which is what it seems to be from the article.

  3. Okay Okay, I admit my initiaI response was “This makes me want to cry.” And it still does, not because I think that getting more computers and digital media are bad, but because I think that the article doesn’t answer any of the questions you’ve asked in this blog post. I disagree that the lamenting nature of the posts I see on Twitter reflects on us as stodgy, because the laments don’t say “OH NO NOT THIS DIGITAL MEDIA STUFF AGAIN!” They say “Oh my this is very extreme! How did the Librarian feel about it? E-books are great but books have their place too!”
    And most the Librarians I have seen post are also shocked and dismayed, but not soley at the removal of books or even the reference desk being replaced by a coffee bar, but for the same reasons. There is no transparency in this article. It is touted as a good thing, forward thinking, with the only dissenting voice being that of the “stodgy” seeming school Librarian. There is no addressing the issues of DRM, or even the fact that they ONLY BOUGHT 18 E-book readers! 18!!!! FOR THE WHOLE SCHOOL TO USE. So while I see people in shock over what they see as a radical move, (what is wrong with paring down the print collection and adding computers and e-books as an added option.) But I also see a lot of Librarians who are very pro digital media discussing the pros and cons of both traditional media and digital versions. For instance:
    “ebooks are great previews for the print but not a total replacement”
    “Ebooks, while gr8, r really just anther info platform (like radio>tv>web), not a total replacement”
    “I like ebooks for reference (searchable/portable), but for the pleasure of reading nothing beats paper and ink.”
    “Good pt re batteries, but print books can’t be read in the dark, fit in our pockets, or be accessed via our phones ”
    (This last one was a response to my response about books being outdated technology. In which I pointed out the advantage of being outdated:No batteries required.) This “feature” of regular books was highlighted by another comment: “lol my mom went conference- roomie had kindle forgot charger- watched mom read books rest of weekend ha!”

    Currently I’m reading transcripts of a live chat with the Headmaster of Cushing, James Tracy. I’m hoping this will provide more insight than the article did: http://www.boston.com/news/local/breaking_news/2009/09/chat_live_with.html
    Already I can see my fear of lack of e-book readers might be unfounded, but there was a question about the role of the teachers and librarian’s input that he seemed to have ignored.
    Maybe I’ll comment again later after reading the whole thing.

    In conclusion, I don’t think the heart of this matter is that Librarians don’t want to move forward with technology. This whole topic blew up like it did was because the article was very one-sided without fully exploring the reasons behind the decision. I know my gut-wrenching reaction was based on the blase way that the Headmaster seemed to be throwing away traditional print resources, instead of going the integration route that most Librarians I know embrace. From Tracy’s live chat: “It seems extreme to me to insist that they have to coexist absolutely everywhere. We are certainly not eliminating printed books from the planet – or even from many spaces around the school – with this decision.”
    My questions for Mr. Tracy would have been: Did you account for the in-house uses of the books? And what are you really going to be doing with all that space you just created? Because I bet their dorms already have sufficient lounge areas.

    The deed is already done though, and only time will tell what the effect is really going to be on students, who already have ever advantage in life, so maybe the affects won’t be tangible or quantifiable by traditional measures.

  4. there are contradictions between the article and the chat (was the 48 books snapshot? or average checked out?) etc. Also what is a childrens book; do they have an actual children’s book collection? A lot of quesions we won’t know the answer to

  5. I’m guessing the books aren’t the real problem at this library. It’s easy to blame the books and get rid of them, instead of looking at the library’s real issues and fixing them.

    Plus, it’s not really news when a school library fixes its problems. In order to get its share of fame, a school has to resort to drastic, topical things like this. Maybe this isn’t an issue with the library, it’s an issue with a lackluster school wanting to bring their name to the attentionof potential new enrollees?

  6. Cushing has a nice public library right down the street. Maybe that is where some of the students are getting their books.

  7. Regarding the statistic on students checking out books: perhaps the students are checking out books at the public library. This statistic seems a bit unreliable, since you can’t really measure whether the students are a reader by this piece of data alone. The students could still be checking out books elsewhere or even buying books.

    One problem I see is whether these students will still be getting library instruction. Also, when they go to college, will they as able to navigate the academic libraries?

  8. Karyn Silverman (@InfoWitch)

    I too wondered about the books in the collection, but from a quick, cursory look at the library page and catalog (all still live), the collection appears to have a good selection of recent, award winning YA fiction; for a school serving only grades 9-12, they may be a little heavy on younger books, but those may be for faculty families or curricular purposes.
    I am more struck by the fact that Cushing has an Institute for 21st Century learning (which recently became affiliated with a portion of Oxford University). The goals are lofty and it seems to me they have decided to make their own school a lab for their vision of the future. I do think they’ve missed one very crucial piece, which is the question of privilege. Cushing can afford to do away with the book; Cushing students, presumably, are fully teched– and if they want to read those quaint old books, can afford to buy their own anyway.
    I don’t think there is any question that print is dying for some types of books. Print encyclopedias are great, but when you factor the timeliness, the cost, and the impossibility of effectively correcting inaccuracies– and of course, the environmental impact– well, really, it’s just a matter of waiting until everyone has the ability to go digital, at least for the general encyclopedia. And since the days of the print encyclopedia in the home are long gone anyway, much of the US already has the ability to access a digital encyclopedia via the same school and public libraries that were already providing the print access. Digital textbooks are also coming, and the sooner the better, for the same reasons plus the physical element; my students can’t carry all their books back and forth without considerable agony (city population, no cars).
    But for general access to a single book, the bottom line is that most of us can’t afford the start up costs associated with going digital. Individuals, schools, public libraries– these are not flush times. My measly budget might go further if I were buying all ebooks, but I can’t afford enough readers to serve even a fraction of my 170-student population, and even if I could, I couldn’t replace them as quickly as they would get lost, stolen, or damaged. Books are more affordable, and every penny counts these days. Cushing can afford to go paperless, and I am curious to see how it works out, but they are experimenting from a place of privilege and therefore a place of fantasy for most. Even if they have fabulous results (and will they? The issues of deep reading raised in the Globe article remain), very few institutions or individuals can replicate this model– and even if they can, how long until a new technology or media renders this version obsolete as well?
    Ultimately, I think this is too much, too soon. Books are cheap, stable, durable; let’s hold on to them while the digital revolution rages. I think the dust won’t settle for a long time yet; in the meantime, I’ll be watching bookless libraries with interest, even as my own circ stats continue to climb.

  9. Whoops. Should have been “whether the students are readers.”

  10. Our high school library will be moving to a new and smaller facility in a new building next June. We have had to take a hard look at our 35,000 plus book collection because we can only take maybe 20,000 with us. We will have plenty of computers but a much smaller collection. At Cushing, they have really thrown the baby out with the bath water to make a statement about 21st century skills, digital books, etc. I remember a similar kerfuffle when microfilm/fiche came along.

    The sane response, in light of the digital revolution, is to look carefully at the reading and borrowing patterns of your patrons/students. Are most of the books being circulated fiction and leisure nonfiction? Then maybe the need to have 50 books on the Russian Revolution is over and digitized books/articles will fill that research need and provide the same bang for fewer bucks. Even if you make that (hard) decision, you had better be sure of two things: your patrons/students should have computers and Internet access at any time they need it and the teachers had better be educated to the reality that books in digital form are really books and not the “world wide interweb” as many of them seem to believe. Otherwise, you are setting up your students for failure. .

  11. I think Donna’s second paragraph is a great one. And I think this whole kerfuffle speaks to the question I’m honestly a little sick of hearing over and over again: How do libraries stay relevant in an increasingly digital world? My answer: if librarians are doing our jobs, libraries will always be relevant. Changing technology, economic trends or generational differences aren’t the issue–our core values and educational goals will always be the same, regardless of the tools we use.

    The really positive outcome of the Cushing story for many of us (and I do feel for the librarian there, even with all the gaps in our knowledge when it comes to her situation) is a chance to really bring these issues to the table and find out where our communities stand, as I did with my principal this afternoon. For instance, should measures like volumes per pupil in many state accreditation standards be adjusted to account for digital resources? How much of library usage is really represented by circulation statistics? And if books really aren’t being read, what does that say about the culture of the school and the library?

  12. Karyn, I LOVE this statement:

    they are experimenting from a place of privilege and therefore a place of fantasy for most.

    BRAVA!!! This is going to be my new MANTRA, not just for technology and eBooks but our entire profession.

    So, so relevant in this discussion. The sentence that caught my eye more than any other in this story was this one: “Where the reference desk was, they are building a $50,000 coffee shop that will include a $12,000 cappuccino machine.” To heck with Kindles and eBook readers, let’s get a $12,000 cappuccino machine! To heck with the year’s salary of a librarian, let’s get a COFFEE SHOP! I think that’s a much bigger stumbling block to “why aren’t kids reading?” than understanding reading and interacting with text means different things now and eBooks aren’t the end of the printed word as we know it, even if the headmaster seems to think books are “scrolls.”

    And Linda, I agree, there were many huge gaps in the story, which seemed to mostly exist to make people clutch their chests and say Kids these days! No one reads books! What’s the world coming to? while their eyelashes fluttered and they dont have to do anything about libraries in their own communities and schools.

    Great post and comments!! 🙂

  13. I have a relative working at Cushing. She told me that the children’s books are for faculty children (it is a boarding school..the teachers and their families live there). She said the people at the school are excited about this move and are surprised by the “firestorm”…it is right for their school. Each department had first dibs on the books before they were given away to public schools.

    I have read many of the comments about this and your blog has one of the more intelligent conversations about it!

  14. In the public library I work at, I don’t see many students (including adults) who understand how much time really researching a topic takes, even using digital sources or e-book readers. Not many students are willing to invest the time in reading a whole book to gain a few nuggets of pertinent information. Eliminating books in a library may lead students to expect research to take even less time than they already do.
    I also think we will see the trend away from using printed books as source material leading to more plagiarism, even in published authors. (“Oops, I didn’t realize I hadn’t written that part myself, because I cut and pasted it into my paper instead of my notes by accident.”)
    I think it’s sad that many books in Cushing’s collection that were given away will not be available in electronic form. Weeding the library collection with an eye to what is not replaceable electronically would have been more appropriate than a wholesale discarding.

  15. There are solid arguments for research & digital books. But, the biggest flaw in Cushings argument remains, IMHO, that not all books are in digitial format, even for research. By limiting the available books to only those in eformat, it’s akin to the joke about the person looking for their keys under the lightpost because that is where the light is. Except, there the person self-narrows themeself; here, another entity (the school) makes the choice. I was hoping that the recreational reading had not been discarded; but, from E-reader, it sounds like that is gone, also. IF the argument is that the pubilc library fills that need, one wonders how the public library feels about becoming the recreational reading place for the school and if the tax dollars support that.

    Management training I’ve been in have always cautioned about dynamics and culture where everyone agrees with one another, so that no differing opinions are given consideration. Sometimes it’s from fear (the differing person is treated in such a way that all learn not to differ); sometimes its self selection (everyone in that committte/team agrees so there is literally no diversity in opinion.) If Cushing is surprised at the response to this, that tells as much about their method of coming to this decision as it does about the decision itself.

  16. One thing I’ve been thinking about over the weekend is the balance needed between reaction and evaluation. I think ultimately that’s what was irking me a bit when I first read the Cushing story and the librarian reactions on Twitter. It seemed like there was a lot of reaction but not always evaluation.

    I find this ironic since we are always talking about the need to teach teens how to evaluate resources successfully. Yet, sometimes we hear or read a story about libraries (or something else that we know much about) and don’t do as much evaluation as perhaps we should.

    Maybe there are some good ideas in the Cushing plans but maybe those ideas need to be balanced with staff and student training, resource evaluation, full analysis of collection use, strategic planning, and perhaps an incremental implementation approach. (Try one or two collections in digital format only, see how they go, etc.) I would love to see more information on the actual process that went into this decision and then a year from now I would love to read a full evaluation of what works, what doesn’t work, what others might try, etc. (BTW, don’t you think that it’s almost better to hear about what didn’t work than what did? That way you know what not to replicate.)

    I’m going to go out on a limb again, perhaps the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater at Cushing but maybe by taking that risk others of us can learn something from it. And, maybe not everything that they do will be all good or all bad.

    Looking forward to evaluating on the other end of the process.

  17. I find it quite annoying that it wasn’t apparent that it’s a boarding school! I think, in a school environment, getting rid of books isn’t a bad way to go.

    Too many libraries spread themselves thin trying to offer everything, when really they need to sit back & determine your particular library’s focus. Are you primarily interested in research? Popular reading? Media? A school library focusing on research, & therefore going completely digital, sounds fabulous to me! Think of all the great databases that could be offered – databases that can’t be offered if you’re spending so much money on encyclopedias & huge, expensive book sets. & let’s face it, in a boarding school environment, there’s a pretty good chance these are teens who know how to use the internet inside & out – an environment in which digital everything (books, music, news, movies, etc) is probably the norm.

  18. Since this seems the place for thoughtful evaluation, I would like to add a few questions of my own. Admittedly, I have more questions than answers!

    1. How will collection development continue at Cushing? Ms. Vezina (I hope) will have the best of databases to choose from – at great cost of course. I doubt that Cushing will be able to duplicate the online opportunities at a large research library.

    2. This brings me to the question of budget. This whole experiment is not cheap. Is there an alumni gift involved in turning the library into a Learning Commons? Someone who works at Sony, Google, or Amazon perhaps? I’m sure there have been many alumni gifts to the library over the course of Cushing’s history. Is this just the most recent?

    2a. What does Cushing’s alumni body have to say about this? Were they informed, apprised, consulted?

    3. The new center of the Learning Commons will be a coffee shop (which will pay for itself – according to Headmaster Tracy). So in addition to high tuition, students will be charged for a cup of coffee – whereas the books were free. I’m imagining a student center full of caffeine hyped kids – oops, I’m getting a little reactive now.

    4. But seriously, will there still be a place for quiet reflective study and reading? I don’t see that.

    5. Why is Cushing’s library catalog still available? I am tempted to fill out an ILL request and see what happens. On the other hand, will we be expected to provide ILLs to Cushing when their students can’t find books anymore? How might an increased ILL demand affect an already overtaxed public library system?

    6. Will NEAS&C have any input regarding Cushing’s accreditation? NEAS&C used to have very specific guidelines for library accreditation, but those have been replaced recently with vague questions about whether a school is fulfilling its mission. Based on that, my guess is that Cushing will be accredited. What about the MBLC? There are of course staffing requirements in order to receive publicly available databases – access to these will be more essential to Cushing now (I would say crucial). Should the MBLC create collection guidelines as well as staffing requirements in order to receive access to databases?

    7. Will the Fisher Watkins Library be providing access to other types of media like DVDs, audiobooks, CDs, or archival CD-ROMs, etc?

    8. Does the Fisher Watkins Library even exist?

    9. Headmaster Tracey says the cost will eventually come down. I don’t see that unless it comes down at public expense or the school will eventually find limited access to databases. The publishers will insure that the cost will not come down. Books (previously owned) will have to be repurchased on Kindles. Again, this is a very expensive experiment.

    10. Is Liz Vezina finding support in her immediate community? I was impressed in the article that she did voice sadness and a sense of opposition with her “Offline Readers Club”. On the other hand, I am also impressed that Liz has maintained a remarkable open mind in this whole process. Has she been supported and commended for her openness? Many schools might not tolerate open opposition in their midst.

    11. Headmaster Tracy said repeatedly in his open chat session that Cushing will have access to “millions of books”, but millions of volumes of junk is much worse than 20,000 volumes of well selected material by a professional librarian (in my opinion).

    12. I would hate to see the Cushing Library become a “print shop”. It will be interesting to see how well (or poorly) their printers are used. I recommend printers with many GB of memory as students will get fed up as they wait for their pdf’s to print. Too often have I seen stacks of common apps to colleges sitting in printers long after the students have left the library.

    13. I hope that Headmaster Tracy will begin to see value in getting input from his paid librarians. In addition, I hope that Ms. Vezina finds multiple ways to turn this into a great learning and teaching opportunity for herself, her career, and her students. I just hate the thought of her standing at the reference desk making cappuccinos.

    Jeff Smith
    Middlesex School
    Concord MA

  19. Keith Michael Fiels

    I had the pleasure of speakinmg to the reporter about this, and was briefly quoted in the article. The comments that appeared in the story were quite freely edited.

    On one hand, the reporter was interested in a broad overview of my thoughts on the long term future of books. What he did not quote were my concerns that eliminating books under the guise of being “progressive”, without a plan for adequately meeting the reading interests of Cushing students, was not in the best interests of those students. Harry Potter should be evidence enough that recreational reading of books is still very big, and independant reading has a significant impact on student achievement, both short and long term.

    While I did not know it at the time, I now understand that the school will be providing 18 Kindles to meet the needs of 400 students! This is not a plan, it’s a disater for these kids.

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