The Rise of the Laptop Library: Should schools go without stacks of books?

The next step in our ever growing and changing world has begun: school libraries going all digital. The prime example was the subject of the cover story in G Nov. 6 from The Boston Globe. The library at Cushing Academy in Ashburnham Mass has eliminated most of the books in it’s library and gone digital. The move turned the building into the most used on campus, where before it was the least, and revolutionized the way students study and interact with each other.

According to the article, the goal in creating the digital library is “to liberate students from stacks full of outdated reference material and mold them into online artistes adept at pursuing research through mastery of databases.” I fully support that goal. I know I would use (and often did in college) an online library over a physical one. I love books but doing online research was always my preference because of ease and I could do it from anywhere on campus. Having the skills of mastering databases is important when entering into the working world where everything is computer based. Just hearing the words “stacks of outdated references” sounds so unappealing.

Credit needs to be given to James Tracey, the headmaster of the school, for orchestrating the switch. He is thinking of not only the technology of the future but of his student’s needs. Since eliminating the stacks of books, the library building has brought the students closer together and given them a place to hang out and study. I am all for schools eliminating what isn’t working in favor of uniting the student body. In the case of Cushing Academy, the benefits seem to have outweighed the risks. Social interaction is most important and it’s proven that students who study together often perform better on exams.

Of course, the elimination of physical books only ignites a larger debate. There are, and seemingly always will be, educators who swear by physical books for completing research. The prospect of online only research send some into a tizzy who fear students are incapable of citing effective sources. For instance, articles have been written solely on the subject of why Wikipedia cannot be cited in papers.

Students today are much smarter than anyone gives them credit for. Most not only know the difference between effective and ineffective sources; they know where to go and find only the good ones. Eliminating libraries full of old books is a step in the right direction because students today are more equipped to find sources online than in books. I find reference books daunting myself; a quick Google search is so much easier and takes less time. The internet (and those online databases offered by libraries) are always changing and are more up to date than a book will ever be. Our world is constantly changing and the internet is the best way to keep up with it.

I know how hard it is for our parents to hear this; anyone who grew up with the Dewy Decimal System freak out over online based research since it’s a vast world unfamiliar to them. They are not wrong. That was a proven method for generations and worked quite well. Like all technology, it’s become outdated. I feel bad for those who have a hard time catching up to modern technology. Adapting isn’t easy for anyone; humans are creatures of habit and we like to complete tasks the way we’ve always known. It’s comfortable to us. But if we don’t change and adapt we won’t grow as a society and remaining stagnant isn’t an option.

I applaud Cushing Academy for recognizing the need to eliminate books. In doing so they’ve recognized the needs of their students and put them before their ideals. It remains to be seen how this change will effect admission going forward but it’s hard to argue with what is clearly working. It would be interesting to see a study of how the elimination of books effected grades. With the library now used as a student center, I wonder if grades have seen marked improvement? The article doesn’t get into where the students would study before but says the new use of the library helps do away with the isolation felt in the residence halls. I always found studying with other people made it fun and boosted my grades on exams.

Another secondary debate has been sparked by this article. While the Cushing Academy library references are being substituted with online databases; the concept of books is never going away; the physical is being replaced by the electronic equivalent. There will always be those who prefer physical books; the article cites English majors as an example. I for one love books and always have. Since graduating college last May I’ve read two complete books, finished a third, and I’m nearly done with a fourth. That being said, I’ve switched to reading electronic books which I not only find easier and more convenient; it just makes sense.  Not having to carry around physical books has been liberating. To be able to read whatever I want and not have to worry if the book is too thick or too heavy in my bag or suitcase is the best feeling. I don’t miss physical books in the least. As I’ve written about before, I’ve been a proud Kindle owner for over two years and love it. Being able to look up words I’m not sure the meaning of right on my Kindle has made me a smarter and more informed reader. From personal experience, having a Kindle is just better.

For schools, be it Middle School, High School, or College to switch to an all electronic format for all textbooks is a good idea in theory but the technology is only in the infant stages.

The main problem, and I’ve thought about this often, is the state of the technology. The Kindle needs improvements before it can be used for educational purposes. For starters, Kindle offers the ability to change print size which throws off page numbers (or “locations” as they’re called). This makes it hard to find a particular passage to either cite in a paper or find easily during class discussions; your location may differ from the location of the person sitting next you for the same passage.

The other, and more important issue, is cost. Textbooks are expensive enough without adding the price of a digital device on top of it. Schools either have to come up with a rental program or give them to their students for it to work. People just aren’t going to pay for a device and textbooks; especially if they are in charge of paying their own textbooks. Of course, e-readers more than pay for themselves over time but right now it just isn’t going to happen. Also, there is the time it would take to train everyone on how to use the devices effectively and with time strained as it is, who is going to take the time to learn how to use the Kindle, iPad, or Nook in their classroom? It just isn’t going to happen right now. Plus, too many teachers are so used to the system of physical books and making the switch would be very difficult for them.

A third point is devices like Kindle don’t have a nice way to read anything beyond novel type books. Textbooks would be hard since flipping back in fourth between sections of the text is difficult. Also, Kindle doesn’t display pictures very well with the grayscale e-ink it uses. Both of these would need marked improvement before it could ever make it in a classroom setting.

Another point to consider is there is still a large percentage of society that haven’t bought into electronic books yet. An (I’ll be it absurd) excuse I’ve heard is people don’t want to read on a book reader because they hate reading on a computer screen. Just try a Kindle before saying stuff like that. It isn’t anywhere near comparable to a computer screen. I’ve heard this from mostly older people who didn’t grow up using computers like my generation but it doesn’t matter. Before making sweeping statements like that; try it out. You may even grow to like it.

This was the first example I’d heard of, where a school fully eradicated their physical library collection in favor of an electronic one. What Cushing Academy has done, like I said before, has revolutionized the school and changed business as usual for the better. They took the most unpopular part of their campus and made it the place students cannot wait to go.I know it’s scary to most but Cushing Academy is forwardly thinking into the future. They have recognized the needs of their students and created a system that works for their most important asset. Let them be hated for it if that’s what it takes. Cushing Academy is bold enough to be among the first in a trend that very soon will be done nationwide. Whether you agree or not, electronic books and online databases are the future and the sooner people get on board the sooner everyone can change for the better.

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