Two years ago Cushing Academy's Fisher-Watkins Library was at the center of a firestorm. The radical and sudden decision to throw out their library books polarized school librarians on everything from their philosophy on reading, to student rights, to process, to the fundamental question of whether a space without books had the right to call itself a library. I recently had the unique and wonderful opportunity to visit Cushing, tour their physical space, learn about the changes, explore their virtual space, and gain a greater understanding of the pedagogy behind their evolution. From pariah to powerhouse, the "bookless library" has a lot to teach us, and offers much to ponder.
|“When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,’’ said headmaster James Tracy. (Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe)|
As an early supporter of Cushing I am happy to share my notes, impressions and the big take-away's. Please note that my notes are just that - quick notations. Any errors or misrepresentations are mine alone. I urge those interested in learning more to investigate the Fisher-Watkins portal and email Director Tom Corbett directly. He is a great guy seeking input and would welcome feedback on the site to continue its ongoing development.
Important contact information:
- Cushing Academy
- Fisher-Watkins web portal
- Approximately 450 students, private boarding school
- Facts at a Glance
The Fisher-Watkins Library has two main purposes:
- To promote reading and make sure it survives in a digital environment
- To promote research and information literacy in the digital age
Upon entering the Fisher-Watkins Library one is struck by the beauty and elegance of the space. It is an architect designed space, built below grade. Upon entering the original 1865 red brick structure you go down a level. Walking a short distance lit by ground level skylights, you go down again. The path is filled with natural light, lined with student work, class gifts and floor-to-ceiling full color glossy, foam core mounted wall displays of speakers ranging from poet laureate Robert Pinskey to Ishamel Beah.
Descending down to the library is a light filled experience. Bow shaped, it looks out onto a grass semi-circle lawn with treetops in the distance. It may be below grade, but on the cold and overcast New England day we visited (12.3.10) it was filled with light. Students are scattered throughout studying by themselves or in small groups. There are a few teachers working independently or conferencing with students. The vibe is relaxed and scholarly. And there are some books.
My visit to Cushing Academy was coordinated by our wonderful local educational collaborative of 22 Boston area schools, EDCO. Fisher-Watkins librarians greeted us and we were ushered to the cafe where we were treated to our choice of coffees and teas. It is professionally and cheerfully staffed, and well stocked with muffins, yogurts and other tidy snacks.
I saw students working in collaborative groups, studying individually, and students meeting with teachers. The vibe was relaxed, focused and scholarly. It wasn't quiet, but it the noise didn't distract from the academic feel. The space was filled with student art and three flat screen displays; one with student news, one with student productions, and one with CNN. Very cool.
In this photo you can see down one half of the library. What is now open space dotted with diverse seating and group work areas was formerly low book stacks. The circulation desk was moved from what was once the cafe area and is now open and centrally located in the library. This shift has made the library staff is much more accessible.
There is a designated silent study area, but for those students who want to sit in the main space Fisher-Watkins has 10 Bose noise canceling headsets. These are very popular and are always checked out during evening hours.
The Faculty Lounge is located at one end of the library and is very popular with staff. Free coffee from cafe staff keep teachers coming to socialize, meet with students, and moving through the space, creating opportunities to talk with the librarians.
There is a wonderful energy to the space.
Fisher-Watkins did not throw out all their books. What they kept and why:
- Art books because they are not as readily available in digital format. They will not be purchasing additional art books in future.
- Donated nonfiction books because they represent an investment by the Cushing community. The nonfiction collection and reference collections are interfiled. No future print purchases are planned.
- Fiction, YA fiction and short story collections were deeply weeded and the remaining high interest titles were kept. There will be no future purchase or collection development. It is now an on demand collection.
Collection development is based on a patron request model. An ebook is purchased because someone wants to read it. New titles are promoted via a digital display in the library and on the library website.
The Kindles are cataloged and checked out to students who can keep them for as long as they want. Of their 99 Kindles, 85 were checked out on the day of our visit. At this time they don't keep track of which title is on which Kindle. Each purchased title comes with six licenses. Once six copies have been loaded onto six different Kindles the license has been fully allocated. If there is a seventh request for a title they buy an additional copy, which translates as six additional licenses.
Amazon Kindle titles are cataloged using print Marc records and edited to reflect it is an e version.
When they started two years ago the process was very confusing but now works well for staff and students.
A few Kindles (maybe five) have come back with damaged screens but were covered by warranty.
Faculty and curriculum planning has increased but like all school libraries it continues to be an area they would like to see grow. Stats indicate database usage is up. Space is used more by students than before.
Building DVD collection for curriculum as well as personal enjoyment.
Kept print magazines for a browsing collection.
Nonfiction collection is purely donated books. About 5000 books left are left in the print collection, 2000 nonfiction. Makes it a funny, eclectic print collection.
Reference is purely digital database and e-reference. Paper reference has been inter-shelved an is allowed to circulate.
There are also regular library orientation classes in the open classrooms at either end of the library.
The school's nonfiction collection is fundamentally entirely online. In addition to databases and ebook purchases from Gale, academic content is purchased through eBook Library (eBL), an Australian group working almost exclusively at the university level - until now. Cushing is their first high school account in the United States. eBL allows the patron to either "buy" a book which provides the patron with access for an entire year, or check it out as a loan. Books can be previewed for five minutes and then the school account will be charged. The cost for borrowing is 1% of the retail price. There is an initial fee to set up the platform. This is new for Fisher-Watkins and they are still in the process of publicizing it with teachers.
This is another example of a patron request collection model. With eBL students have access to over 150,000 high quality university press titles. Resources are paid for as they are used. Purchasing is not just in case, but as needed. There are no costs associated with processing, shelving or, eventually, with weeding. Libraries need to look more closely at this model.
This is the core of the Fisher-Watkins philosophy. The library is not the place students and faculty go to get material. It is the place they go to learn how to effectively search digital resources to find what they need, and it is an environment designed for studious inquiry and work. An example of this philosophy can be seen in a screen shot from their Kindle page. Students are guided to Amazon, the biggest print and digital book vendor in the world, as their personal library.
The Web Site
The philosophy of the website is really important.
The Fisher-Watkins website was created using Drupal, an open source content management platform. This web interface merges the catalog and databases using a federated search called Deep Web Technologies. They dropped their ILS (integrated library system) catalog!
Why? OPACS are transaction focused. Fisher-Watkins decided they needed a new approach that was not focused on managing inventory. Their platform is designed to focus on patron support. They have moved away from a collection maintenance philosophy. The catalog is viewed as a starting point to launching the student on a quest to find what is needed.
A little more on DeepWeb. This federated search engine was developed and is used by Stanford University, and they have picked up a number of additional "big users." This is their first high school project. It pulls results from all the databases and digital resources, evaluates them and displays returns based on a ranking algorithm. A sidebar provides metadata for a richer search experience that helps develop skills in evaluating returns. This is a very Google-like search experience.
The Fisher-Watkins Drupal platform is totally customized and the goal is to make the template available to other libraries. It is still being developed.
Catalogers would have a heart attack over the thinness of the records. No tracings! Basic genre tags. The "catalog" supports students in exploring their wants/needs, and purchasing it on the spot. The library is a gateway to global digital content, paid for by the school.
- Approximately $50,000 for materials, $20-30 for databases and ebooks.
- Former book budget was rolled into digital content, got a small bump for additional ebook purchases.
- Kindles purchased with capital funds, not budget.
- $30-35,000 now for digital content.
After our tour our group shared a wonderful lunch, and a fascinating and far reaching discussion.
One question was "If you had to do it over again what would you not do?" Tom said it would have been helpful to clarify how they were organizing reading and maybe minimize the initial bad press. However it really got the conversation going. Also, he wouldn't have gone so thoroughly digital all at once, and maybe would have rolled it out more slowly.
Tom Likes the iPad with Kindle app. It can be distracting having everything available, but this is what we have to teach our students.
My time at the Fisher-Watkins Library was one of the most powerful professional development experiences of my career. As a private school Cushing has more latitude than is possible in the public school sector. What they are exploring is print information evolving in a digital world of what seems like ubiquitous access. They are providing curated access to digital content for academic inquiry and personal reading. They are scaffolding students in developing the critical thinking and technology skills necessary to navigate this environment. They are changing the fundamental model of school libraries.
As I continue to evaluate our curriculum, our collection, our service model and our web presence the lessons I learned at Fisher-Watkins will guide me.
My sincere thanks to Director Tom Corbett, Head Librarian Liz Vezina, and library staff members
Karen Lemieux, Susan Larkin and Jill Henry. The fortitude of the staff during a time of radical change must be commended. A personal thank you for your warm hospitality and the thoughtful time you took with our group.