Saturday, September 5, 2009

A Library Without Books?

Getting rid of the library books and switching from paper to digital is a daring move, and has generated wrath and outrage from librarians and bibliophiles around the world. Just a guess, but I'll predict that in twenty years all libraries will look more like Cushing Academy than they will resemble the libraries of today.

Remember Captain James T. Kirk on Star Trek? Kirk had funny little glasses that he wore to read the old-fashioned, antique books he collected, rather than online reading like everyone else. His character was more sympathetic, romantic, and intelligent as a result. (Is my crush showing here?)

Libraries are evolving. Magazines and the good old Reader's Guide to Periodicals (remember that!) have shifted to online databases. Much easier to use and search, and they don't take up space. Paper is a format to transfer information. We love it, and have powerful feelings associated with reading from paper. What about our digital kids? Do they have the same romantic feelings for holding a book? Some do, and are quite adamant about their love of books. Lots of kids prefer digital and say they like online reading. Some of the most dedicated readers at CCHS will proudly show you the reading apps they have on their phones. These teens usually have a hard cover edition at home, and use their phone edition so they don't have to carry an extra book during the day.

The financial implications of such a radical shift are tremendous. Investing in e-readers of various brands before a clear industry standard has emerged is a risky investment. Paying for licenses for an entire new collection is expensive, and again, in a quickly evolving technology the "shelf life" (ha ha) of titles isn't guaranteed. This move is clearly garnering a lot of publicity for this small, private school, so perhaps that entered into the business plan as well. This is not a transition a public sector library could afford, nor should they at this point in the technology.

I also wonder what a shift like this would mean for our shared culture of reading. The sensory experience of a book in hand, the sound of pages rustling, small pencil notations in the margin left by a previous reader, the satisfaction of seeing the bookmark move through the volume, tracking our progress. The best is the sense of dread I get when I see I am approaching the end of a book I just can't put down. Yet, I also love the portability of the Kindle.

What about that child, so proud to walk around with Harry Potter under his arm? And those unexpected connections with people when you see what they are reading and strike up a conversation? Is this a sort of book-vanity, or an important part of our culture and the comfort we get from libraries and books.

So where do I stand? Somewhere in the middle ground. Let's watch this trend, continue to evaluate the digital shift and the role of paper. For now, I say go for it, Cushing. And let us know how it works out.

This is a clever YouTube video on a similar theme.

Boston Globe: A Library Without Books
YouTube: Introducing the Book

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