The Death of a Library

Josie Leavitt - September 8, 2009

It was with shock and horror that I read the "A Library Without Books" article from the Boston Globe when my friend Vicki Uminowicz posted on the New England Children’s Bookselling Advisory Council listserv late last week, about a prep school outside of Boston almost gleefully removing all the books from its library.

It seems that headmaster James Tracy looks at books as purely outdated technology, “like scrolls,” he says. So he removed all 20,000 books (mostly he’s given them away to other schools that still use and appreciate books – at least he’s done one thing right) from the library and is creating, instead of stacks filled with books, a multimedia electronic center. The main feature of this new world is a coffee shop. A coffee shop, at a prep school! Do you think it’s more important to get a good latte or maybe be able to actually touch a book, to look at a great image, to pore over an index looking for help with your mid-term paper? To quote the article:

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… they have spent $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.

Okay, so let’s do some math here: this new world that will make our students better by giving the best technology money can buy, the school is spending $12,000 on a cappuccino machine and only $10,000 on E-readers. Seems to me the school wants to be a Starbucks and not a place of learning.  Oh, and if you’re one of the 450 students who aren’t able to check out one of the 18 E-Readers, then it’s suggested that you read all your texts on your computer. Yes, the same computers where kids instant-message several friends simultaneously while checking their Facebook accounts. I really wonder just how much these poor kids are going to be able actually learn competing with everything else on their computers.

I just can’t imagine paying $41,825 (last year’s tuition at Cushing Academy) and not having any actual books in the library. As a prospective parent at this school, what would matter to me would be not the state-of-art e-readers available to 4% of the student body, or a top-of-the-line cappuccino machine (how many parents really want their growing kids having such ready access to caffeine?), the flat panel screens that make surfing the web cool, and Facebook pages all the more enjoyable, or being told to research on the web, which is often full of bad sources that often cannot be verified without using a book (many colleges have forbidden use of Wikipedia entries in any research papers).

Clearly, this issue strikes close to my heart. I cannot imagine walking into a “library” and not finding anything to thumb through, to hold and to smell. Books are our history as well as our future. To abandon books altogether in favor of flashy technology seems short-sighted and foolish. There is no middle ground, so smooth transition, no try-out period. Just one man’s opinion that books are worthless in the school setting (my English teacher is rolling in his grave) and boom, they’re gone. I am so angry I can barely see straight. But I’m an even-handed blogger.

In fairness, I’m giving a link to a speech by headmaster James Tracy defending his reasoning for the removing all the books. I just think he’s so in love with himself for abolishing the library as we know it, opting for computers, what he calls “Portals to Civllizations,” that I can find no points that sway me. And finally, the last paragraph really sums up what he thinks: This is the future. All those who fail to get ahead of this curve, embrace its possibilities, and try to optimize its potential for humane and humanizing contingencies, will face certain reduction to irrelevance within ten years.

I cannot imagine that the book will become irrelevant in ten years. I suspect what’s more likely to happen is headmasters who become so enamored of riding the latest technological wave, and are so full of hubris, will find themselves obsolete far sooner than ten years. But at least if James Tracy finds himself without a job when parents realize books are good and vital, he can get a great cup of coffee on the way out. 

31 thoughts on “The Death of a Library

  1. Hugh Ellis

    It makes me want to scream! All I can think about is Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” I can’t think of anything more sacred than a real book. Sure, I made sure that my novel, “Blue Vendetta,” was available on Kindle, but there is little that could ever compare with holding the first copy in my hand. I’m sorry, but I can’t imagine hiding under the covers with a laptop reading “Dracula” on a dark, stormy night. That man is not an educator – he is an idiot studying to be a moron!

  2. Betty Davies

    That is just sad. With technology comes the death of everything that we cherish and that is important to this society. It takes closed minded people like this guy more intent to spend money then to preserve what should be important to our children!!

  3. Roy M Carlisle

    Dear Josie, I, for one, celebrate this action. Don’t misunderstand me, I proudly own 9,000 books and love them. And I have been reading about the demise of the book since I started in bookselling/publishing back in 1973. But we do need someone to push the envelope on this electroni/ebook issue so we can see what happens. I want someone to monitor this school and this story and keep us all abreast of what happens. As publishing professionals we owe it to ourselves to know how this will shake out. And we all know this (the ebook phenomenon) is shaking out in ways we can’t even imagine. I will admit that I am glad this didn’t happen when my daughters were in school or grad school in the 80s/90s but I do want to know what this will spark. Roy M Carlisle 510-459-7763

  4. Carol Nevius

    Please tell me that this was a High School and not an Elementary…what about those vulnerable “tweens” in Middle/Junior High? There is nothing electronic that can replace chewing on a book for a toddler or turning the pages as a tangible act of progress and looking at the pictures while sounding out the words for a proud new reader. Perhaps there is an age when the use of technology needs to predominate in budgets and educational sensibilities, but please at least let our young children fall in love with books with large print and colorful, textured and sense stimulating illustrations on real paper, not just electrons going poof on a CRT screen.

  5. Debbie

    It’s also horrifying to think that once the school realizes a mistake has been made, this guy has already given away all of their books. The whole idea just makes me shake my head.

  6. Heidi Estrin

    What everyone seems to be forgetting is that all this cutting edge new technology they’re installing will be out of date and need upgrading within five years or so, and that’s gonna cost big bucks. Once the initial excitement has worn off, it won’t be so easy to find funding for boring maintenance like upgrades. Not to mention the regular ongoing maintenance to keep the machines in smooth running order, the money needed for ink, paper, flash drives, etc., the time wasted on clearing paper jams and rebooting frozen machines and policing kids who are on gaming sites instead of educational sites. What they’re forgetting is that the physical book needs a lot less maintenance (ok, some dusting, and once in a while some mending) and remains usable without upgrading for centuries.

  7. RCO

    One of the points the headmaster made was that only around 30 non-childrens books had been checked out of the library last spring. My question is, how will this help? In other words, the problem isn’t that students would rather deal with e-books than physical ones, it’s that the students simply aren’t reading from the library. Was the problem that the library had the wrong titles? Will business suddenly go off simply because the e-catalog is bigger? In other words, I think there’s more than one point being missed by this guy.

  8. gina

    Here’s the thing. I am also horrified by the vast amount of money on technology that will be need to be upgraded CONSTANTLY. And I agree that it will be easier to access personal email, facebook, etc. It will be interesting to see how the school will monitor computer use. There’s a small part of me that applauds the principal’s decision because when I was in junior high and high school, my school libraries were small and full of books that were of no use to me. Not that I wasn’t inquisitive or a slacker. It’s just that reports and essays required sources that were not available at my school libraries. I had two choices: go to the public library (which was nearly impossible as I was a latch-key kid) or go online. And there was that other deterrent–slow, old computers with slow/bad internet connections.

  9. Martha Egan

    Pathetic! Students are allowing this to happen? If so, they’ll remain ignorant and malleable. Libraries-public ones in particular– have played a huge, vital role in making literature and verifiable, vetted, reliable information available to all, and have been a major force in democracy. A published book cannot be redacted or changed as can a book on a Kindle or Internet site. I will not allow my books to go on a Kindle. I want readers to read them exactly as I wrote them, typos and all.

  10. Nelda Mohr

    Does this school not have a governing board? I think it might be time to review the headmaster’s contract. If I were a parent with a student in this school my child would be transferred to another school as fast as the suitcase could be packed.

  11. Caryn

    They require no outside device to be useful. They never need to be recharged and can be utilized anywhere, for hours or even days on end. They survive being dropped, tossed around, kept in purses and backpacks, used in the sun and sand. They are decorative. Most never need updating. They provide a unique tactile and often emotional experience. They can be stored for indefinite periods without any loss of function whatsoever. I don’t know, sounds like some advanced technology to me. I am also wondering how much money they estimated the coffee shop would bring in.

  12. Ms. Librarian

    I agree with much of what has been said here about books—I’m an avid reader and I love them too—but the point Mr. Tracy is making, and a valid one at that, is about school LIBRARIES. Libraries must change, are changing, especially libraries whose purpose is to support academic research (i.e., school and college libraries, rather than, say, public libraries). One way libraries (and librarians) can stay relevant is if the role of a librarian changes from book supplier to information manager. If my PUBLIC library decided to do this, I would be quite upset, as the purpose of a public library is to serve a wide community, much of it geared toward reading for pleasure. But a high school library’s purpose is to support the academic inquiry of the students at that school. If print books weren’t doing the trick, then moving to electronic options isn’t that unreasonable a step to take in today’s world. (Going completely digital in one year is a radical step, to be sure!) However, I do wonder if Mr. Tracy knows what’s he’s getting himself into financially—but his intentions are not that far away from what academic libraries are already doing (or talking about doing, anyway).

  13. Dave A

    I feel ill. So the printed page becomes obsolete. The feel of turning pages is replaced with mouse clicks and scrolling. Books wind up in landfills or will be recycled into something useful like McDonalds Happy Meal packaging. Then one day a gigantic electromagnetic pulse wipes out everything electronic and we get to tell our grandkids… “I remember when books were made of paper and ink. The good old days.”

  14. Talya

    All I can say is that I am sick to my stomach at this story… I will never never never ever want to read a book on a screen rather than hold it in my hand – and I’m no dinosaur, I’m a young, 30 year old, librarian who is up to speed on all her technology. I will still take a book over a computer-generated anything any and every day of my life…

  15. Sonderbooks

    That man should definitely read Feed, by M. T. Anderson. I think it presents a pretty sensible view of how much “smarter” kids will be with better internet access (a chip in their brains). I also find it amazing that he talks about how he loves his own personal library. Doesn’t he want any of the kids at the school to have that relationship with books? Couldn’t they save a little room for some fiction?

  16. Deborah MacInnis

    The headmaster has forgotten a number of things. Library books are vetted for accuracy of information. Wait till the reports come in with no holocaust or moon landing. Or how about the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus. What happens when we have a new cycle of sunspots complete with power outages and cellular/ wireless disruption? What happens when you are in a place where there is no electriciy? 18 readers for 400 kids, is crazy.

  17. Anne

    The true idiocy of this decision lies in the fact that ebooks simply cannot do certain things that books do. Like display complex illustrations and footnotes.

  18. Jacqueline Seewald

    I believe in technology, and as a librarian, I taught a great many how to use computers and software. However, to my mind, the virtual should never replace a library where books exist. As someone who appreciates the value of reading real books, I would never be able to reconcile such a computerized library with real learning for students. Jacqueline Seewald author of THE DROWNING POOL, Five Star 2009 THE INFERNO COLLECTION, Five Star hardcover, Wheeler large print 2008

  19. Erin

    I read Headmaster Tracy’s speech, and I was not shocked so much as induced to roll my eyes and sigh. I’ve heard all his arguments before. He is right about one thing: It is so much easier to do research on the Internet than it is to search for that same information in bound volumes. I have been a copy editor at a newspaper and magazine for years, and I thank the stars for the Internet when I just need to verify a quick fact or the proper spelling of “Nicolas Cage.” (I am 34, by the way.) However, Mr. Tracy seems to be missing several points, some of which have already been brought up by other commenters. 1) As any archivist knows, data is worthless if the means for reading or listening to that data is obsolete. Remember floppy disks? What comes after the USB port? He is going to have to upgrade, a lot. 2) If we run out of resources (such as oil) to create electricity with which to power our technology, it will be worthless. 3) Saying the Internet is “the wave of the future” is leaving out the majority of the people on this planet. Vast numbers of people around the globe are not privileged enough even to have electricity, let alone computers, and forget about steady Internet access. In this way I think Mr. Tracy is especially short-sighted. In this way I think books will always prevail.

  20. Anonymous

    At our public library, we got wind of this travesty from someone close to the story a few weeks before the papers did. It seems that the school’s governing board doesn’t communicate with the staff, only with the headmaster. Also, before the first 20,000 volumes were discarded, each academic department was invited to take whatever they wanted to house in their departments. So apparently a large number of books have been carted off to various buildings that may be structurally unable to handle the weight, something that no one seems to have considered. If Mr. Tracy was looking for 15 minutes of fame, he’s exceeded his wildest expectations. This story isn’t going away for a long time. Would you spend over $40,000 a year to send your child to this school?

  21. c. ortiz

    Sadly, this seems to be a growing attitude among school administrators. Technology is great, the Internet is a wonderful tool, but we still need books. New products and technology supplement and complement the existing, not replace it. Things phase in (and out) they are not yanked and wrenched and thrown in the dumpster to be replaced “overnight” by something new and unproven or not universally accessible. This is something to lament, indeed.

  22. Rick Toone

    I agree with most all the comments above and let me state why. I create and produce digital children’s books. Yes we have pictures and text, and we enhance the books by adding audio (narration, music and sound effects). We do this because less than 50% of children are read to on a daily basis and that in itself is wrong. We do know that children with electronic devices will and do read our digital books in the back seats of cars, at Starbucks (when mom meets friends) and at home on the computer. Given a choice children prefer to click or touch a screen than flip a page ( I believe games are very popular, especially the portable ones). Electronics are cool and using them in the proper way will instill a love of reading in a child. I know there are many theories about screens but if parents take control of the content then the children will win. Think about this… how many times do adults go to a Starbucks vs going to a library? What do we teach our kids about immediate gratification? Do libraries have the most up to date books for research? Colleges and the Chinese are doing away with textbooks is this wrong? Times are changing and while I wouldn’t have given away 20k books I am in favor of incorporating new technology for the benefit of education. As for the coffee machine… Make mine a double.

  23. Marc Franco

    The school should afford the students a choice by offering content in print and digital. The digital footprint is negligible and the digital library occupies zero floor space. There is no need to discard books. See, this is a classic example of how a technical dilettante, with seemingly good intentions, botches a project with promise. Peace! Marc Franco high tech entrepreneur and author of CATCHING SANTA.


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