- The Washington Times - Monday, November 2, 2009

The Cushing Academy library is moving full speed down the information highway and leaving its book collection behind. In order to provide a cutting-edge 21st-century education, the Massachusetts prep school has removed 10,000 books, to be replaced by a digital database.

The remaining 10,000 books will be donated to other schools and libraries by this time next year. This move makes Cushing’s library the first fully digitalized library in any secondary school in the country.

Library usage research revealed that an average of just 48 books were checked out from the collection each day. More than 30 of them were children’s books, thanks to faculty who live on campus at the boarding school.

Now faculty will have to hold up a Kindle to their children’s bedside at night, showing a pixilated Peter Pan. The library plans to purchase e-books exclusively in the future.

Gone will be the days of wandering the oak shelves to find a literary gem. Cushing students will click through a search database to find their resources. If a student wants to check out a book, the librarians’ role will be to help the student download it to on-loan Kindles linked to 13 databases.

Headmaster James Tracy wrote on the school Web site that this new electronic learning environment “opens up possibilities for the democratization of knowledge that humanity has rarely dared dream before.” He said in an interview with National Public Radio that e-books are cheaper than hardcovers.

The price of a Kindle to read those e-books ranges from $200 to $500, making much of the online literary world still accessible only to those who can afford it. Cushing’s $42,850 boarding school price tag may be able to provide this experience for students, but it’s doubtful this “democratic revolution” will be affordable to public schools anytime soon.

Mr. Tracy is leading the print purge. He emphasized that the school is not “anti-book” but wants to emerge as a pioneer of digital education. “Our view of the matter is that we love books so much that we want our students to have dramatically increased access to millions of volumes rather than just 20,000,” he wrote on the school’s Web site. The question remains whether getting rid of 20,000 books is necessary in updating an electronic system.

The freshly hired executive director of the library, Tom Corbett, told The Washington Times that the school wants to focus exclusively on an online database and “do it right” rather than juggle both print and online mediums.

He explained the difficulties of keeping a physical book collection current, saying the books were rarely checked out and were “an inefficient use of space.”

Replacing the books will be a $50,000 coffee shop, complete with a $12,000 espresso machine. There also are three new flat-screen TVs broadcasting live Internet feeds on global news headlines.

Mr. Corbett cites these changes as another chapter in the future of libraries.

“A lot of scholarly work is done at places like Starbucks. The coffee shop makes the library a gathering place for students,” he said.

In an interview with the Boston Globe, Mr. Tracy compared paperbacks to antiquated scrolls.

“When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,” he said.

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