Cushing Academy, a private school in Massachusetts, is making the move to a purely digital library–no more books. Kids will access information only electronically. The Library will have 18 e-readers for student use.
In general, the move toward digital information sources is a good one. Digital versions of books are often less than half the price of the library bound edition. E-books will never wear out, never get lost, never be chewed by a dog or left on the porch in the rain (though the e-readers will be, I imagine.) Students enjoy accessing information digitally–those that have them use cell phones and iPods and laptops and Kindles quite happily. Looking at the comparative weights of my daughters’ textbooks and a Kindle, I’m all for switching to digital.
Much of the reaction to the whole “coffee bar” idea comes from a sort of collective gasp over the cost. In a recession, with library budgets slashed, teacher positions cut, and families in financial crisis, it seems jaw-droppingly, over-the-top insane to spend that much money on a school coffee bar. (What would other schools do with $72,000?) However, this is not a school or a community in any financial difficulty. It’s their cash.
In the specific case, I cannot imagine why the administration (or the library staff) thought that 18 e-readers would be sufficient for a school with an enrollment of over 400. The $72,000 for the coffee bar would have purchased over 200 more e-readers. The original article did not address how kids without e-readers would access books. Perhaps, being the children of wealthy families, they all already have e-readers. Perhaps the library intends to license digital copies of the novels, poems, non-fiction, and reference books they’ve discarded. Perhaps.
A quick look at Amazon’s Kindle Store tells me they offer over 300,000 titles. The SONY e-Book Store looks to have a pretty comprehensive collection. But even the most cursory glance through what’s available show that there are holes. For example, Cushing will now have a school library with no Harry Potter books. I looked for the books our AP History kids read this summer, and discovered that you can’t get Salt, by Mark Kurlansky, in a digital edition.There are many, many more titles that exist only on paper. And–Cory Doctorow aside–I don’t see authors flocking to release their new works into the public domain or under Creative Commons license. And while many authors have licensed Kindle or e-book versions of their works, the books aren’t licensed for access on regular computers. If I’m a student with no e-reader, all the books in the Cushing library are closed books to me.
I also can’t quite imagine using an e-reader to read anything that relies heavily on graphics to support the text. Reading a graphic novel on a 6″ screen sounds like an exercise in frustration. And scrolling back and forth between an illustration of a physics experiment and the accompanying text doesn’t sound like a picnic, either.
It seems to me that there are still so many problems with access. The move to a purely digital library seems very, very, premature.