- 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.

Today brings a new “scrolling” generation, in the form of Internet browsing. Critics worry that the close reading experience of physical text will be lost as students read literature online, breezing through Thucydides’ war commentary as if it were a half-cooked blog post.

Cushing Academy, which sits on more than 160 acres northwest of Worcester, was founded in 1865 and opened in 1875, making it one of the nation’s oldest coed boarding schools. Its famous alumni include the late actress Bette Davis, the Washington Capitals’ Tom Poti and the king of Bhutan.

While faculty had first claim on books that were removed, Mr. Corbett said the school will not be going completely bookless. The role of a secondary school library has traditionally been to provide research materials, not the main reading text, he said.

“For the most part, students will continue to do close reading with hardcover literature purchased for class,” he said. “This library’s function has primarily been to provide content supporting academic study, such as literary criticism and an author’s biographical information.”

Critics raise further concern that students reading online will be distracted by e-mails and buzzing instant messages from classmates with handles such as FoucaultCutie4Lyfe.

Currently, Kindle does not have open wireless browsing, only wireless connectivity to download books. Mr. Corbett said the wireless feature on Kindle will be turned off when students check out one from the library.

Yet like libraries, Kindle also is subject to technological evolution. An article in this month’s Wired magazine chronicles the way users have defined the capacities of Twitter. In the same way, it’s probable that users will define Kindle’s utility as well. There have been reports of a Web browser on Kindle in the future, creating a wealth of distractions for logged-on student readers.

Yet students are already surrounded by these distractions. Google has become the 21st-century reference librarian. Students primarily are using online resources for their research, and Mr. Corbett sees this move as a way to change the role of the librarian to fit the online world.

“If students are using the Internet to find pages like Wikipedia as sources, the librarians can now help students utilize our subscription database to find scholarly, peer-reviewed information,” he said.

Commenters about the new digitilized library have settled largely into two camps: hardcover nostalgics mourning the loss of the traditional library experience, and futurists equating digital with improvement. Are both missing what could be the central question in Cushing Academy’s library experiment: Will the digital library enhance the quality of students’ educational experience?

Mr. Corbett thinks so. “Right now, it’s too early in the process to tell,” he said. “But as librarians are freed up from time-consuming hours of maintaining a book collection, we can find a new role of being directly involved in the way students are doing their schoolwork in the 21st century.”

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