Wednesday, September 23, 2009

cushing academy just doesn't get it

Cushing Academy, a prep school in Ashburnham, Massachussetts, is replacing the books in its library with computers. Completely. They're getting rid of a good library of 20,000 books, carefully collected over decades.

This is just one school library, one might argue. But the danger to society at large comes from making the unthinkable thinkable.

Libraries have always grown to include new forms of media. But before this they have generally kept the previous forms. The exception has been replacing items which could only be accessed by machines most people no longer owned with a form accessed by machines most people, by that time, do own. (E.g., records were replaced by cassette tapes which in turn were replaced by CDs.) When they got records, they didn't throw out the books. When they got books on tape, they didn't throw out the books. When they got videos, they didn't throw out the music or the books on tape -- or the books. They just kept adding media, enriching the overall information experience.

Books are usable anywhere they can be carried. They need no special technology. Even if the lights go out, a book is readable again as soon as the sun rises. And people like the paper format. Many people prefer the format. Some refuse to read anything of length any other way -- including many young people. In my library experience, most students with a reading assignment that's already checked out will change their choice (if possible) or go out and buy the book rather than read it at a computer, even if it's available for free from The Gutenberg Project.

I actually like to read books from a computer sometimes. (It's a playing-Star-Trek thing; it's fun because it feels futuristic.) But I also love my books and would never part with those dear friends. And I certainly would never presume to take the pleasure of holding a volume and turning the pages away from others.

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