Saturday, October 03, 2009

Death to the School Library

Last December, I wrote a rant about Amazon.com and its e-reader, the Kindle. To quote me, I said, “. . . there is no fucking way I will ever give up real books for an e-reader . . .” I admit that's a rather strongly worded quote, but I like Bloggerville to know exactly where I stand on an issue.

Well, at least one person disagrees with me: James Tracy, the headmaster of Cushing Academy, a snooty prep school for rich kids west of Boston. I picked up this story from The Boston Globe, written by David Abel on September 4, 2009.

“This year, after having amassed a collection of more than 20,000 books, officials at the pristine campus have decided the 144-year-old school no longer needs a traditional library. The academy’s administrators have decided to discard all their books and have given away half of what stocked their sprawling stacks—the classics, novels, poetry, biographies, tomes on every subject from the humanities to the sciences. The future, they believe, is digital.

“Instead of a library, the academy is spending nearly $500,000 to create a ‘learning center.’ 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.

“And to replace those old pulpy devices that have transmitted information since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1400s, they have spent $10,000 to buy 18 electronic readers made by Amazon.com and Sony. Administrators plan to distribute the readers, which they’re stocking with digital material, to students looking to spend more time with literature."

I am aghast. 3 large TVs for what, cluster reads? 18 e-readers for several hundred students? Wait until some scholar spills his or her cappuccino on the Library Kindle: William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice will be making her choice much sooner than expected.

The real tragedy, of course, is encouraging young people to read—and not just the blockbusters like Harry Potter and The Twilight Saga. Without rows of bookshelves (called stacks in the article) and real books to browse, how will a student know that Sophie’s Choice (or any other book) even exists?

The purpose of a prep school is to teach, to prepare the rich kids for the rich universities like Harvard and Radcliffe. Classes in polo and croquet are fine, but not at the expense of English and literature.
"Jemmel Billingslea, an 18-year-old senior, thought about the prospect of a school without books. It didn't bother him.

"'It's a little strange,' he said. 'But this is the future.'"

This isn't my future, Bubba.

13 comments:

Wandering Coyote said...

I am flabbergasted that they are putting a cappuccino machine in a high school! WTF is wrong with these people? Do they really want all these kids hyped up on caffeine???

The whole thing is really short-sighted. I'd be yanking my kid if I had one there. A school with no books? WTF?

And the complacency of that kid they quoted is just saddening.

Meg said...

I read that article and I was ... hmm... discombobulated, I guess. I can't imagine a world without books.

One of my friends has a Kindle. I played with it for a while and it was a rather nifty device, but I couldn't imagine reading books on an electronic screen. I've downloaded and tried to read e-books on my computer, but I never finish them. It's just not the same.

Browsing is the best part of the library/bookstore experience, I think. You never know what wonders you'll find on a bookshelf.

Peter S. said...

Hi, Charlie! I can sense how passionate you feel about this subject, which has become somehow unavoidable in these technology-obsessed times.

I must admit though that I'm one of the people who are eagerly waiting for the Kindle to hit Manila. But I haven't heard any plans yet. I can't wait to get my hands on that gadget. Actually, a lot of people are surprised that I have this anticipation, since they're assuming that I'm the last person on earth to go gaga over a gadget that would inevitably lead to having fewer books in one's bookshelves. I guess I'm all for change. And if some people find reading using Kindle convenient, then so be it.

Still, like you, I'm anxious as to the effects of these gadgets if they proliferate, particularly, how they're going to affect the reading habits of young people. I feel that it's up to us, we bibliophiles, to promote books that have endeared to us.

I have to agree with you that some of the changes underway in the library that you've mentioned are misguided. Perhaps, they just want more people to visit the library. Here in Manila, we were saddened to see the Thomas Jefferson library transform from one with loads of books to an institution that now only has computers. They've mentioned that the change was due to the fact that not a lot of people were visiting the library.

Tiffin said...

The heft and scent of a book, the feel of the paper in your fingers, make it more than just an eye/brain relationship. I suppose youngsters growing up knowing only the feel of plastic, the light of the screen, won't get it but to me the physical entity of a book represents a companionship, a relationship of communication, I've not experienced in any other medium. No, I wouldn't want to substitute the pleasure of reading from a book for the more sterile experience of reading from something like a Kindle. I'm with you, Charlie. Those eagerly anticipated rectangular parcels wrapped under the Christmas tree could never be matched by a download from the internet.

savannah said...

I completely agree with you, sugar! Nothing, no technology can or should replace books. The idea has ramifications far beyond just the loss of real books on real shelves. Has anyone considered how it will affect publishing? Who will decide what is selected for digitizing? What will the effect be on new authors? There has to always be a choice to make sure that censorship always has a difficult road to travel! I worry for the future. xoxox

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Just wait till the first big power failure!

Charlie said...

These are all such good comments that it would be redundant for me to answer each one individually. Therefore, I'm going to do a cluster comment (since no one picked up on my one bit of humor, the cluster read).

I do not have a problem with e-readers for personal use. Peter, if the Kindle comes to Manila, enjoy it: who am I to dictate your reading habits or how you read books? That sounds like censorship to me.

What does bother me, as well as most of you, is the giving (or throwing) away of an entire book library in favor of the mass adoption of e-readers. Especially in a school. You can bet that the other hoity-toity prep schools are keeping their eye on Cushing Academy's experiment.

And how long will it be before the money-hungry public school systems start snooping around?

Savannah worries about the future and so do I: who will be responsible for what is downloadable and what is not? Will the banned books be banned? Will the dark times in American (and world) history be glossed over or not included at all? Will the religious right exclude Darwin and evolution?

Tiffin and Meg look at it aesthetically: the pleasures of browsing and finding hidden treasures, the heft, scent, and feel of the paper, all replaced by cheaply-made pieces of plastic crap. The notion of curling up in my favorite chair with a device that looks like my cellphone just doesn't get it for me. And it won't.

I just read this morning that another advance in digital books is just around the corner: color. Both Apple and Microsoft have working prototypes.

And I forgot to mention that Amazon.com is going to start downloading advertising and those silly-assed "Our recommendations for you."

As far as cappuccino machines, WC, that's for Cushing's new honors class, Starbucks 101. These are rich kids, remember, who are going to be the bankers, brokers, and politicians of tomorrow.

Finally, but not least, my friend Barbara. The battery life of the present Kindles is pretty short, so they need to run off an AC adaptor—at extra cost, of course.

You know, I really feel badly for the kids of a not-too-distant future and their almost total reliance on computers and technology. I'm glad I won't be here to see it.

Pat said...

Those poor kids! Never knowing the comfort and joy of curling up with a good book.

koonsmother said...

The horror...the horror.

Attila The Mom said...

As usual, you hit the nail on the head. My biggest beef is that they obviously aren't going to put every book ever published on the damn device. So who decides?

One of the biggest joys I've had in life is finding some old gem from sales that maybe never made it to the Times List. The fact that some Kindle editor is going to decide for me what is relevant or not totally turned me off from the device in the first place.

Diane said...

I way annoyed by that article when I read it as well. Why not try the Kindle out at the school first, before tossing out all those great books? It doesn't make sense to me!

I don't own a Kindle, as I prefer holding a real book; it adds to my reading experience. My husband calls me "gadget girl", as I did get Ipods, Iphone etc. I said, "If I was realy a gadget girl, I'd have to have the Kindle, but for now, I can do without"..LOL

Mark David said...

NO WAY I'm giving up real books for electronic copies either. They can say all want about the benefits of ebooks, and possibly I may even get myself one someday as an auxiliary tool, but I'd still like to keep my nice and beautiful and human-psyche-friendly books. Nothing can replace the benefits and advantages of being able to touch and turn real pages. The same way no video game can really be better for young children compared to tangible toys.

Charlie said...

This comment thread has turned out to be longer than the post! I guess I touched some nerves.

The theme, from Pat down to Mark David, is the joy of owning, holding, and reading physical books.

Diane is right about Cushing doing it ass backwards: Why didn't they experiment first?

I agree with Mark David that an e-reader will work as an auxiliary tool. I think it would be great for a comprehensive dictionary, and I would like a Latin dictionary because so much is used in lit.

But how to put a world atlas on one???

Thanks to all of you real-book lovers for your comments.