Books are going out the door

The Boston Globe reported a week ago that the Cushing Academy, a prestigious prep school in western Massachusetts, is replacing its 20,000-volume book collection with a “learning center” containing 18 eBook readers and three giant TV screens. It’s replacing the reference desk with a $12,000 espresso machine.

“It’s a little strange, but this is the future.”

ALA executive director Keith Michael Fiels says this is the first library he is aware of to eliminate books.

“When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,’’ said James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing and chief promoter of the bookless campus. “Our feeling,” he says, “is that we love books so much that we want our students to not have 20,000, but millions.”

Student Tia Alliy, a 16-year-old junior, said she visits the library nearly every day, but only once looked for a book in the stacks. “Very few students actually read them. And the more we use e-books, the fewer books we have to carry around.’’ Jemmel Billingslea, an 18-year-old senior says, “It’s a little strange, but this is the future.’’

The times are indeed a-changin’. One large library in Utah has replaced a reference service, not with an expresso bar, but with a Delicious account. At least a dozen other libraries I follow have replaced their reference desks with online reference services and in turn replaced those with Ask-a-Librarian Twitter accounts.

Have your deans or city council begun asking if your users are still reading books? Have they indicated that the space occupied by your book stacks might be better used? Is your library still serving a vital community need?

What are the implications of libraries offering collections and services based on usage? Was it a good idea in the past for libraries to eliminate research collections in favor of stocking videos and trendy novels from the best seller lists? Is usage a good indicator of value? Doesn’t it make sense doesn’t it to replace the works of William Shakespeare with big screen TVs offering access to American Idols? After all, they now get more usage (hits) than the Bard.

Libraries are under increasing pressure these days to change the ways we’ve traditionally done things. Is the book just a format medium that needs to be retired? The knee-jerk response to give customers what they want, to keep up with how people are using information, and to seek ways of cutting costs may, in the final analysis, be short sighted. Or, are the downsides of the bookless future things we can address and overcome?

The Cushing Library experience might make a great discussion at your next retreat, board meeting, or graduate seminar.

Here are few links to help you get started (don’t neglect the public’s comments; the discussions are well thought and surprisingly insightful):

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Ray Matthews

Government Documents and Digital Library Services Coordinator, Utah State Library

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