Cushing 1, Books 0

There’s been quite a lot of discussion the past several years on what we might refer to as The Future of the Book. Unsurprisingly, virtually all of this relates to the impact of the internet on the fate of the printed page. And while a lot of this discussion has been tedious, as it often is, much of it has been quite good; for example, Roger Darnton’s observations (and the subsequent commentary) in The New York Review of Books, and various discussion elsewhere on the overall impact of, particularly, Google. Few of these discussions, though, have generated the kind of visceral response that the Boston Globe story, about Cushing Academy getting rid of its books and replacing them with eighteen Kindles and a cappuccino machine, has generated.

Here’s the meat of the Globe story:

This year, after having amassed a collection of more than 20,000 books, officials at the pristine campus about 90 minutes west of Boston have decided the 144-year-old school no longer needs a traditional library. The academy’s administrators have decided to discard all their books and have given away half of what stocked their sprawling stacks – the classics, novels, poetry, biographies, tomes on every subject from the humanities to the sciences. The future, they believe, is digital.

“When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,’’ said James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing and chief promoter of the bookless campus. “This isn’t ‘Fahrenheit 451’ [the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel in which books are banned]. We’re not discouraging students from reading. We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology.’’

Instead of a library, the academy is spending nearly $500,000 to create a “learning center,’’ though that is only one of the names in contention for the new space. 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.

To date, this story has generated 432 comments (probably more by the time this has been posted). And you can just imagine. Leaving aside the obvious questions like “The big oversized art books too?” and “The bound copies of Life magazine?”, the commentators really get at the point that’s been nagging me as well—um, why? That sort of thing. It’s a pretty lively commentary, with about 95% of the comments running along the “How dare they?” lines.

So I was pleased that the other blogger in the family had a more sensible take on this, meaning the one with the library science degree who actually knows a thing or two about this sort of issue. And she zeroes right in:

Um, yeah. So first and foremost this is obviously a desperate ploy for publicity. I wonder if they were really expecting quite the universal derision that seems to have been heaped upon them: even the techie blogs think that this is insane. I know there’s no such thing as bad publicity and all, but I find it hard to believe that any parents looking to spend $160k on their child’s high school education will be reading this press and thinking “Gee, I hadn’t heard of Cushing Academy. AND they don’t have books in their library? SCORE!” Versus other schools that offer, y’know, both books AND the internet.

Most people talking about this article are waxing eloquent about how cozy it is to curl up in an armchair and turn the pages, and that’s all well and good, but it totally misses the way that a school library is utilized. School libraries aren’t for pleasure reading. I’m sure that even at a 4th rate school like Cushing, there isn’t much time for leisure reading: between academics and sports and extracurriculars, I know that I and pretty much everyone I knew rarely read for fun while school was in session in both high school and college. School libraries are for research, even at the secondary school level. They are depositories of academic books, often from academic publishers and with a very limited print run, and hard or impossible to find in a bookstore. They contain a wide range of reference books, not only your basic set of Encyclopedia Brittanica, but also more obscure reference texts. Trained librarians are there to assist students in learning how to do research.

I’m not actually as horrified as most people are over this publicity stunt, because it’s just too stupid to be shocking. It’s not even shockingly stupid because, hey, at least they’re being honest. It’s a school full of jocks doing their 5th year of high school and brain dead new money kids who like the idea of a New England prep school. The teachers don’t have any interest in enforcing limits on students using the web to research, and the students are too dull and lazy to actually do research the right way. So they’re just being honest that the kids don’t care, the teachers don’t care, and most tellingly, the parents don’t care. Because what kind of parent would send their child to a school without any books, but with a $12,000 cappuccino machine? Exactly.

This strikes me as being sensible. Prep schools are in a bind these days, like universities. Like any other enterprise, they need to meet costs, and to market themselves, and this may turn out to be a really clever marketing strategy—or a hugely dumb one. This really doesn’t speak to the future of books very much, other than to observe that a second tier prep school has decided that it doesn’t need any in its library. Well, the market will decide whether this is a winning strategy or not, and it will interesting to see whether this headmaster still has a job in a couple of years. What he’ll be judged on, of course, is whether this ploy improves Cushing’s college admittance performance. For all I know, the Cushing administrators behind this decision may have a very good grasp of the marketing dynamics relevant to the Cushing applicant pool.

There are all sort of reasons why Kindles might be a good idea—they may be greener, and they can be an interesing pedagogical tool for classroom instruction (embed the homework in with the reading assignments, say, for a chemistry textbook, with various heuristics for correcting wrong answers, that sort of thing—the technology already exists for all this). Curling up with one in the dim corner of the wood-panelled library in front of a cozy fire on a winter’s afternoon somehow doesn’t have quite the same resonance. But I can’t honestly say that that was part of my secondary school experience anyway, as fond as I was of my library—I was too busy doing research for the next dumb term paper. If we’re going to create a culture with a love of books, it’s going to come from a love of reading, and a love of ideas. Libraries with real books are necessary here, but perhaps not sufficient.

The above stamp was issued in 2000 to celebrate the bicentennial of the Library of Congress, which hopefully won’t be chucking all their books any time soon.

4 replies »

  1. Agreed that this is example is a public relations ploy more than anything else, though i’m not sure why the switch would require removing all the library books.

    The predicted demise of the book is a special issue for me, as the money it took to raise me was earned in the printing industry and i come, not surprisingly, from a family of compulsive readers. What a joy to “grow up” in a printing factory! Screw making candy, Malloy was like Willy Wonka’s to me. And i ended up working there too…cutting my teeth on an ancient binding line that my uncle had purchased used 25 years previously. I’ve been involved in every step of the printing process. Not surprisingly, i’m a weird bibliophile who checks “back up” and gutter margins before making a purchase in a book store.

    The idea of a book-free world scares me like no other dystopian fantasy, but frankly, i don’t see it happening. There will be great changes, especially in the educational publishing industry, but printers and publishers are employing new technology as well. In the old ways, a print run needed to be fairly long to cover the costs of ramping everything from laser plate engravers to multi-million dollar presses and binding lines. But new techniques can go basically from PDF to binding on a single machine, facilitating short print runs that are profitable and produce high quality books quickly.

    In some ways, the publishing/printing sector is opening up like never before. And self-publishing has never been so easy or realistic. I’ll be sad if the great, clattering factories of my youth go the way of the dodo (hell, they’re already mostly replaced by whirring and whooshing), but so long as the beauty of well-made book remains i’ll adjust.

    And let’s face it, well composed thoughts deserve the permanence of print.

  2. As Sanctimommy suggests, when did books and the Net become an either/or question? Her take seems spot on.

    If Cushing had been interested in making this kind of change, for whatever reason, and had intended it as a good faith move to help students, they’d have done one thing differently. That thing is the $12K espressomonger. THAT’S the ticket to understanding what this is REALLY about, huh?

  3. As a bibliomaniac myself, I think you’re right–while there has been a definite media and retail consolidation trend the past two decades, we’re now at the point where there is also a profusion of new, more specialized publishers. And it’s great. I will always own books, and buy them, and read them.

    Now, my wife loves Kindle, and she has a point. She likes to read lots of crap mysteries, and her attitude is–why waste trees on this stuff? Just load it up on Kindle and off we go. And I can’t fault that. For books that I would normally get from the library and not buy, the Kindle is a nice solution. I imagine I’ll eventually be forced to read the new Dan Brown, just to confirm how bad it is. Why should we waste paper on this? I’m perfectly happy reading this stuff on Kindle.

    I also think that we’re on the cusp of where the real revolution will be–in educational publishing. There’s been stuff percolating here for years, in fact decades. But I can see a system where we give every kid a kindle, with that year’s reading and assignments on it. And for the quantititative stuff (ie, math, chemistry etc) there are already programs out these that capitalize on the fact that there is a systematicity to the errors that students make, and these can be predicted and corrected. So you could include mini-tutorials on each of these types of errors as part of the process, and if the student needs it, it’s there–if s/he doesn’t, then it’s never used. It also makes bringing in new curricula easy–when I was on the school board in the town we lived in in New Jersey, the process of reviewing a new curriculum involved a prodigious use of time. This would simplify that process considerably. It would also save school districts a whole lot of money, becuase it would open up educational publishing in a way that you couldn’t do now. Which would be a decided positive.

    Where this leaves libraries, I think, is where they are now–underfunded and under constant pressure. But they will adapt as well, and in some scenarios thrive. Cushing is probably going to be seen as an extreme–you’re right, why does bringing in the new tech involve getting rid of the books arleady there? Some very sloppy thinking here. It will be interesting to see this evolve.