Monday, September 7, 2009

Forget libraries without walls here's a library without any books.

On Friday (Sept. 4th, 2009) the Boston Globe submitted this story about Cushing Academy (90 minutes west of Boston) announcing that their library is going to be going the way of the buffalo, at least their books are. This article has sparked a large reaction/response from the blogs and listservs frequented by librarians and book-lovers alike. Some of these responses are measured, informed and questioning, such as's response or LibraryJuice. Then there are responses/related articles of the type from CNN with the opening sentence that reads: "The stereotypical library is dying -- and it's taking its shushing ladies, dank smell and endless shelves of books with it." The CNN article gets a little better as it does discuss the tension that exists in the between-place thatmany libraries seem to currently occupy between going compeletly digital and holding to those physical things, books, that were the reason the libraries were built in the first place.
It seems that the main tension point can be captured in PBS's recent cancellation of Reading Rainbow. Quoting from that article, the several hundred thousands of dollars that would have been used to renew Reading Rainbow are being used so "... that PBS, CPB and the Department of Education put significant funding toward programming that would teach kids how to read..." This however is not the reason that Reading Rainbow was put into place, rather "..."Reading Rainbow taught kids why to read... the love of reading — [the show] encouraged kids to pick up a book and to read." The why vs. the how. The support of how to read rather than the why of reading also seems to contribute to the driving force behind Cushing's decision to go bookless.
“When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,’’ said James Tracy" (headmaster of the school) For Tracy, as portrayed by this article, the presence of physical books do not meet the technological standards that are, seemingly, necessary for an educational institution to survive. To arrive at book as an outdated technology is to ask them how they are competing rather than to ask
In place of the books "...the academy is spending nearly $500,000 to create a
“learning center,’’ though that is only one of the names in contention for the new
space. In place of the stacks, they are spending $42,000 on three large
flat-screen TVs that will project data from the Internet and $20,000 on
special laptop-friendly study carrels. Where the reference desk was, they are building a
$50,000 coffee shop that will include a $12,000 cappuccino machine."

This seems to be a rather curious position for a school to take in terms of pedagogy because it seem that what they are effectively telling their students is that information absorbed/received through screens is the most important and that the only data worth discussing is that received from the Internet. (The other question raised here is who is choosing the content? Or is this generation so good at selectively ignoring information that the choice of content won't matter?) Is this approach really creating complete learners? Forgot the whole library/book issue here for a brief second this approach raises serious questions about the educational approach and furthering consequences as these students start achieving positions of power/prestige in Fortune 500 companies and government (why else do you got to a phenomenally expensive New England prep school-seriously. Not to seem needlessly cycnical or paranoid but there are surely governement leaders and policy -makers that are going to comfortable in a non-book oriented society and are most likely going to be willing to promote that as a policy and direction.)
From a librarian's perspective the school/library is going to attempt to counter the whole bookless thing with 18 (eighteen-count 'em) ebook readers for their students. The school has "...$10,000 to buy 18 electronic readers made by and Sony. Administrators plan to distribute the readers, which they’re stocking with digital material, to students looking to spend more time with literature." The focus not being on why students/faculty should have access to the library books but how they should have access and that access should be immediate and, for now at least, limited. Also that the administrators are stocking the e-readers with digital material rather than the students exploring how they develop their own reading habits and styles. Granted librarians order books so there is some control inherent but also the stacks are typically propagated in such a way as to encourage the exercising of personal choice and taste.

In reading various librarian responses to the Cushing Academy's/Headmaster Tracey's decision one of the themes that seems to exist is the lack of a really concrete argument(s) we as a profession have yet to come up with for the continuing of books in a physical form. Unfortunately, in terms of a logical defense, we often shoot for either 1) nostalgia (how the books smell/feel) or 2) serendipitious searching (finding other interesting items outside of the specified books). While these two items are held with open arms and wildly-beating hearts by all bibliophiles, librarian or not, these are not good arguments for the continued use of books, especially to people who didn't think that in the first place. Even though I firmly and completely believe in these two items as reasons to use books, I am more than capable of positing a ridiculouisly strong arguement for the use of digital materials only, both in terms of books and journals. Do librarians have a good argument for the continued use of phsyical materials?
As I've been thinking about this issue, I wonder if one of the issues at stake here is our collective uncomfortability with ambiguity-both in meaning and in purpose. That is to say some/much of the reward in reading literature is dealing with the ambiguities and shades of meaning and working through them both in terms of encountering the material and afterwards (the not-knowing as Bartheleme states). Granted the book's content does not change whether reading it through a screen or through a page but the question of ownership of that content as well as sharing and commenting on that content. Using only logic perhaps it makes sense to get rid of our books. If we are only seeking to build a world in which screens and input devices deliver our content for us, in which there are no ambiguities of meaning or finding, then this is a good thing. The siren-call of technology-as-progress is a deeply pulling one but I think we need to beware that this pursuit overtake our love of learning for the why. If we are only concerned with how we only need input/content devices. But if we are concerned with the why we need to exercise our wills in choosing/encountering our own ambiguities rather than having them scripted for us.
The other aspect of this how/why question is found in limitation. In reading reviews of the Kindle one of the stated benefits is that the reader can, if desired, switch to a completely different book on a whim. This bypasses the idea of limiting oneself in order to fully explore the particular item. STravinsky's example in his book Poetics of Music states that in sitting down to compose he is lost when he examines the entire keyboard but limiting himself to seven particular notes he is able to focus his energies. "If everything is permissible to me, the best and the worst; if nothing offers me any resistance...consequently every undertaking becomes futile." (pg. 63 Poetics of Music) Our knowledge is not enhanced by overhwelming ourselves with a mass of information but our knowledge is enhanced by limiting ourselves to a particular work or study. If I can only read one book at a time there is no tempation, in theory, of switching to another book as in an e-reader.
There is not much question how to use a book but rather why to use it. When readers posit to non-readers reading is how you learn about the world or how the world can be dreamed/enchanted or explored the very consistent response, in my experience from the non-reader, is I don't like to read. This assumption that can be drawn from this is that this non-reader quote unquote is getting their exploration of the world elsewhere and, while this is extremely anecdotal, most likely they are getting it from a screen.
If there is any arguement for books above the nostalgia I think it is this. Books assist us in limiting ourselves and our information gathering processes which in turns helps us to/provides the ability to think the world more deeply. If we are unable to set boundaries for ourselves in information gathering we will not be able to create knowledge for ourselves and will be reduced to functioning as screens ourselves-only regurgitating the information we've received without any thought, critical or otherwise.

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