A Story You May Have Missed in 2009…

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Miles of print have been dedicated to Cushing Academy’s (Ashburnham, Massachusetts) recent decision to transform itself into a “virtually bookless” library.  Last spring, I had the opportunity to hear Cushing’s headmaster, James Tracy, address the issue during a library conference; the response was what you would expect from a group of librarians, but since then, it seems that everything has been said and nearly everyone has weighed in.  If you have not caught the reports on either network newscasts or weekly news magazines, here are two views.

The first is a statement from Headmaster Tracy:

“Dedicated to forging the most forward-thinking programs for twenty-first century education, Cushing Academy is in the process of transforming our library into one that is virtually bookless by 2010.

Our internal research has shown that students rarely rely on printed books for their academic work, and instead search for information online, either in our library space or on their laptops. In order to effectively guide our students in using the myriad sources now available and rapidly growing in electronic formats, Cushing is working to create a radically different vehicle for accessing ideas and information.

Our current collection of 20,000 books will soon be replaced by millions of volumes in far less space and with much richer and more powerful means of access. Terminals we call “Portals of Civilization” will give ready access to everything humans have achieved, from every civilization, across an ever-expanding universe of culture. Space that previously housed bound books will become community-building areas where students and teachers are encouraged to interact, with a coffee shop, faculty lounge, shared teacher and students learning environments, and areas for study.

Our hope is to provide not only electronic research tools, but also to create an electronic lending library with use of a Kindle or other e-reader, as well as to renovate the physical space to make it a center for collaboration, communication, and experiential learning.”

Of the many statements opposing Cushing’s decision, this is an excerpt from the one I most admired.  It was printed in the November issue of School Library Journal.

“A school without books is one in which fewer students will be reading, and those of us who work with students every day in the libraries of our nation’s schools have no doubt that access to the traditionally printed word is an essential component of a successful education.

James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing Academy, has argued that by discarding 20,000 books and choosing to deliver information to all his students in digital format he is a trailblazer who has placed Cushing ‘in the forefront of a pedagogical and technological shift.’  However, his drastic act ignores certain fundamental truths.

First of all, individual libraries are built intentionally, over time, by trained professionals, and resources are selected with the needs of the community in mind.  Such collections are vibrant entities that continually expand and contract.  Many resources are available electronically, but many are not and may never be.  In addition, books go out of print quickly, databases stop archiving material without notice, and e-book collections are compiled by corporations that do not differentiate one school from another.  Once a library has on its shelf a book that perfectly meets the needs of a group of users and has the potential for continued relevance, what does an institution gain by discarding that book?  More to the point, what does it lose?”

Liz Gray, president of the Association of Independent School Librarians

Cheryl Steele, president of the Independent School Section of the American Association of School Librarians

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