Cushing Letter

September 21, 2009

A school without books is one in which fewer students will be reading, and those of us who work with students every day in the libraries of our nation’s schools have no doubt that access to the traditionally printed word is an essential component of a successful education.

Urban planning theorist Jane Jacobs postulated that a healthy community—one that is economically, socially, politically, and environmentally vibrant—is designed and built based on the activities, values, and concerns of the full range of its constituents.  Diversity is its hallmark. The same can be said of libraries: if they are monolithic, adherents to a single format and inflexible, they outlive their usefulness. The library that James Tracy envisions for Cushing Academy, the independent school that he leads in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, will unfortunately be such a place after the planned removal of its entire printed book collection, and his actions are cause for great concern in our profession.

Dr. Tracy has argued the opposite; he believes that by discarding 20,000 books and choosing to deliver information to all his students in digital format he is a trailblazer who has placed Cushing "in the forefront of a pedagogical and technological shift" (“Letter to Cushing Academy Alumni,” September 2009).  However, his drastic act ignores certain fundamental truths.

First of all, individual libraries are built intentionally, over time, by trained professionals, and resources are selected with the needs of the community that the library serves in mind. Such collections are vibrant entities that continually expand and contract. Many resources are available electronically but many are not and may never be. In addition, books go out of print quickly, databases stop archiving material without notice, and e-book collections are compiled by corporations that do not differentiate one school from another. Once a library has purchased and has on its shelf a book that perfectly meets the need of a group of users and has the potential for continued relevance, what does an institution gain by discarding that book? More to the point, what does it lose?

Secondly, a school library's most important goals are to support the academic curriculum, to teach information literacy and to foster a love of reading. None of these goals can be reached completely without the inclusion of printed books. The last 500 years have proven that printed books are a uniquely successful information-delivery system and, when they are organized in a library and used in conjunction with information in a variety of other media, offer multiple and repeated opportunities for learning.  The removal of printed books impoverishes an entire learning modality and dismisses outright the value of books' physical attributes, in and of themselves and as conduits for browsing and serendipity, and the contributions of that physicality to a student’s reading experience.

Finally, consider the facts.  Years of research on reading have proven conclusively that students who read improve not only their vocabularies but also their abilities to reason and discriminate. However, as John Austin points out in his excellent review of Marc Bauerlein’s book The Dumbest Generation Ever (Independent School, Winter 2009), in spite of the exponential increase in the amount of information being digitized, young people are reading less and less of it. In addition, reading online, both because of the physical demands of the medium and because of multiple opportunities for distraction, does not result in the same focused engagement with the text that is possible with a printed book. Common sense suggests that we should be doing everything in our power to encourage students to read and engage with the printed page more, not less. We also do our students a disservice if we do not teach them how to use all the sources of information which they will encounter at the college and university level.  Not surprisingly, the use of printed books is still very much in vogue in higher education.

Every librarian we know is in the vanguard of technology use at his or her school and a passionate reader and user of printed books.  To suggest that the two are mutually exclusive is regressive and reveals a lack of knowledge both of the way digital information is created, sold and used, and of the value of appropriate printed materials to many users. Responsible collection development is not driven by a one-size-fits-all mentality or by access to unlimited funds.

Between us, we have 73 years of experience as librarians in both independent and public schools. Though many of the skills we teach are the same as they were when we first began working in the field, our 2009 toolkit is vastly different from the one with which we started out, and we are glad of it. However, that is no reason for us to jettison our rich collections of printed books.

Sincerely,

Liz Gray
President
Association of Independent School Librarians
www.aislnews.org
lizbiz55@verizon.net

Cheryl Steele
President
Independent School Section of the American Association of School Librarians
www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/aasl/aboutaasl/aaslcommunity/aaslsections/iss
cherylsteele@hotmail.com

Cassandra Barnett
President
American Association of School Librarians
www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/aasl/
cassandra.barnett@fayar.net

Please email comments and suggestions to Teresa Copeland.