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It seems that headmaster James Tracy looks at books as purely outdated technology, “like scrolls,” he says.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 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.
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.