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Monday, September 28, 2009

Cushing Academy's decision to make the transition to a completely digital library...

Cushing Academy's decision to make the transition to a completely digital library has created quite a stir in the school library world. The following are two letters in response to that decision and an article on whether school libraries are needed at all...what do you think?

Septembr 21, 2009

A school without books is one in which fewer students will be reading, andthose of us who work with students every day in the libraries of ournation’s schools have no doubt that access to the traditionally printedword is an essential component of a successful education. Urban planning theorist Jane Jacobs postulated that a healthycommunity—one that is economically, socially, politically, andenvironmentally vibrant—is designed and built based on the activities,values, and concerns of the full range of its constituents. Diversity isits hallmark. The same can be said of libraries: if they are monolithic,adherents to a single format and inflexible, they outlive theirusefulness. The library that James Tracy envisions for Cushing Academy,the independent school that he leads in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, willunfortunately be such a place after the planned removal of its entireprinted book collection, and his actions are cause for great concern inour profession.Dr. Tracy has argued the opposite; he believes that by discarding 20,000books and choosing to deliver information to all his students in digitalformat he is a trailblazer who has placed Cushing "in the forefront of apedagogical and technological shift" (“Letter to Cushing Academy Alumni,”September 2009). However, his drastic act ignores certain fundamentaltruths.First of all, individual libraries are built intentionally, over time, bytrained professionals, and resources are selected with the needs of thecommunity that the library serves in mind. Such collections are vibrantentities that continually expand and contract. Many resources areavailable electronically but many are not and may never be. In addition,books go out of print quickly, databases stop archiving material withoutnotice, and e-book collections are compiled by corporations that do notdifferentiate one school from another. Once a library has purchased andhas on its shelf a book that perfectly meets the need of a group of usersand has the potential for continued relevance, what does an institutiongain by discarding that book? More to the point, what does it lose? Secondly, a school library's most important goals are to support theacademic curriculum, to teach information literacy and to foster a love ofreading. None of these goals can be reached completely without theinclusion of printed books. The last 500 years have proven that printedbooks are a uniquely successful information-delivery system and, when theyare organized in a library and used in conjunction with information in avariety of other media, offer multiple and repeated opportunities forlearning. The removal of printed books impoverishes an entire learningmodality and dismisses outright the value of books' physical attributes,in and of themselves and as conduits for browsing and serendipity, and thecontributions of that physicality to a student’s reading experience.Finally, consider the facts. Years of research on reading have provenconclusively that students who read improve not only their vocabulariesbut also their abilities to reason and discriminate. However, as JohnAustin points out in his excellent review of Marc Bauerlein’s book TheDumbest Generation Ever (Independent School, Winter 2009), in spite of theexponential increase in the amount of information being digitized, youngpeople are reading less and less of it. In addition, reading online, bothbecause of the physical demands of the medium and because of multipleopportunities for distraction, does not result in the same focusedengagement with the text that is possible with a printed book. Commonsense suggests that we should be doing everything in our power toencourage students to read and engage with the printed page more, notless. We also do our students a disservice if we do not teach them how touse all the sources of information which they will encounter at thecollege and university level. Not surprisingly, the use of printed booksis still very much in vogue in higher education.Every librarian we know is in the vanguard of technology use at his or herschool and a passionate reader and user of printed books. To suggest thatthe two are mutually exclusive is regressive and reveals a lack ofknowledge both of the way digital information is created, sold and used,and of the value of appropriate printed materials to many users.Responsible collection development is not driven by a one-size-fits-allmentality or by access to unlimited funds. Between us, we have 73 years of experience as librarians in bothindependent and public schools. Though many of the skills we teach are thesame as they were when we first began working in the field, our 2009toolkit is vastly different from the one with which we started out, and weare glad of it. However, that is no reason for us to jettison our richcollections of printed books.

Sincerely,Liz GrayPresidentAssociation of Independent School Librarians

As a possible corrective to his grave error in judgment regarding the jettisoning of the Cushing Library, I would strongly suggest that Dr. Tracy do the heretical and spend some time reading Chris Hedges' new book, EMPIRE OF ILLUSION: THE END OF LITERACY AND THE TRIUMPH OF SPECTACLE. As a former independent school library director of many years (who fondly recalls his visit to the Cushing library) and as a classroom teacher, and now as a college instructor as well as a public librarian, I know firsthand the decline in reading skills we are witnessing as a society. It is dangerous in all political settings, and no less so in a democracy, that the people who are the recipients of their government's actions, know how to discern and to judge. An avalanche of data, often half-digested at best by those who post it, and far too often skewed by ideologies, is no substitute for the more focused experience of a book or a good journal. Nor can one find the removal from the world's frenzy and the repair that is often needed, emotionally and spiritually, that a good book -- and a good library -- can offer. I suspect that if Dr. Tracy does not realize his mistake during the years that remain to him at Cushing, his successor will. The error should become evident within a short time.

Ralph Melnick,
PhDAssistant Director
Westfield Atheneaum
Westfield, MA

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great story as for me. I'd like to read a bit more about this topic. Thnx for sharing that data.

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