To Book or Not to Book

kindleCushing Academy, a swanky private school in northern Massachusetts, is ridding itself of books. As explains , it’s a question of technology not censorship:

“When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,’’ said James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing and chief promoter of the bookless campus. “This isn’t ‘Fahrenheit 451’ [the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel in which books are banned]. We’re not discouraging students from reading. We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology.’’

The move is part of an overhaul of the entire library. The idea of transforming traditional libraries into space-age “learning centers” is not new. Library architects have long strived to make libraries more congenial to the patrons, rather than just storage spaces for more books. It’s important to have somewhere comfy to read those books you’ve managed to locate. Widener Library is a good example of the exact opposite of this trend. To the newcomer, our library is “unfriendly,” “confusing,” “a Cretan Labyrinth in which one expects to be assaulted by the monstrous Minotaur,” and, despite massive renovations, this is still more or less true (except for the Minotaur; he’s quite friendly).  So I applaud the Academy’s efforts to create a more inviting work space for the patrons. Even the mention of their new “$12,000 cappuccino machine” (which I expect was included in the hope that certain readers will shake their fists and holler “Why, those good-fur-nothin’ high-falutin’ fancy-pants bigshots”) doesn’t bother me; no one can deny the inseparable bond between research and caffeine.
The inclusion of wide-screen TVs “that will project data from the Internet” begins to stretch credulity. This sort of thing is a sign of large budgets that must be spent. As a government employee, I worked in an office that had gobs of money thrown at it following 9/11 and one of the first moves was to buy some of those damn TVs for the walls. The idea, allegedly, was to create a similar sort of space to the “learning center” with the idea that certain vital information, should it ever appear, would be broadcast on these screens to form a “collaborative environment.” In reality, they just wanted to look like those CIS shows where supermodels solve crimes while bathed in indirect blue lighting. Add to this the sort of “data from the internet” that a high school student would find interesting and you move from useless to potentially litigious.
But the real story here is the removal of all the books. Understandably, the librarian is upset having been stripped of the tools of her profession and made Head Babysitter for a bunch of caffeine-stoked wireheads trying to download Jay Z mp3’s. But while this all strikes me as indulging in technological hysteria, I find the primary argument against losing the books equally silly, if not downright fetishistic:

“They worry about an environment where students can no longer browse rows of voluptuous books, replete with glossy photographs, intricate maps, and pages dog-eared by generations of students….
“I love books. I’ve grown up with them, and there’s something lost when they’re virtual. There’s a sensual side to them – the smell, the feel, the physicality of a book is something really special.’’

I’ve heard similar slightly creepy gushing from NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” program on Amazon’s electronic book, the Kindle (which, not surprisingly, is what Cushing Academy is using to replace their books : eighteen Kindles. I wonder how long you get to check them out?). In response to Jacob Weisberg’s article in Slate  , “How the Kindle will change the world,” several concerned citizens called in to talk about how much they loved to touch books (also, one REALLY concerned citizen, if you know what I mean, warned us that the Kindle was a government conspiracy to brainwash us, “Like in that book, Animal Farm.” I don’t know what he’s worried about – I just read Animal Farm on my Kindle and it was really cute. What a happy ending!). They also shared their memories of “sniffing” books, all while “getting warm” next to them in bed.
Take a cold shower, people! In my profession, one acquires an attitude toward books akin to how a veterinarian who works at an animal shelter feels about kittens. Yes, they are wonderful creations, we love them dearly and want to take them all home, but I’m afraid some of them are going to have to go. Not all books are created equal and in fact, few of them are created with any sort of skill or artistic endeavour at all. I mean, really, when was the last time you bought or even read a well-made leather-bound book? And if you did happen to pull an old tome off the shelf, what is that smell you found so charming? Mold spores. Though we may like to think of books as living entities, companions and whatnot, they are more like decaying corpses. I have books in front of me right now which are essentially disinterred remains whose rotting pages are held together with bandages. Working with them will leave me snot-nosed and teary-eyed, my clothes and hands streaked with a pestilent brown powder that clings to whatever it touches and, I kid you not, burns your skin. The pages will threaten to fall apart in my hands and the text will have been rendered illegible by wormholes. Yes, the charming bookworm exists, chewing through paper and leather like a maggot through flesh. And these texts are not terribly old, maybe a little over 100 years. The library has entire departments devoted to trying to stop the decay of books, including strike teams for emergency response and a freezer for preserving that copy of The Great Gatsby you dropped in the pool. Some books are Dead On Arrival, coming straight from the publisher with cheap bindings unglued, pages falling out, text smeared across the page. And let’s face it, some books just shouldn’t have been written in the first place. So let’s not grow too effusive in our worship of the common book. It could benefit from some improvements. Granted, modern books with their acid-free paper and whatnot are more durable than those lovely leather volumes but eventually the grease from your needy fingers and the damp heat of summer will collude to turn your precious books to mush.

No, the real shame of trying to create a bookless library is that you instantly confine yourself only to those books which are available electronically. I know, it seems like Amazon has every book in the world, but it’s far from true. While their goal “to have every book ever printed, in every language, available on Kindle” is admirable, at 300,000 titles, they’ve got a long way to go. A quick search for anything by the famed Persianist E.G. Browne came up blank in the Kindle library, while Steve Aylett, the brilliantly insane British, um, author is represented only by his latest title, Lint (a mock-biography that I highly recommend), while none of his earlier and essential works like Slaughtermatic or Fain the Sorcerer are available. I mean, come on, no Slaughtermatic? Losers. If there is one book that over-privileged New England kids need to read, that’s it. I’m reminded of my disappointment when I finally made my foray into Itunes only to discover that not only could I not find recent imports (hello, Comsat Angels back catalog), but I couldn’t even get a copy of Peter Gabriel’s “So”. In essence, the bookless library will be buying their books from a single vendor and a vendor with whom they have no rapport. For our Persian collection alone (none of which, I imagine, will ever be available on Kindle), I work with three different vendors, each specializing in a different realm. If there’s a book we need, I ask them to find it and they often go to great lengths to do so. Our vendor in Tehran travels the country, visits book fairs and publishers, even makes copies at the National Library. It’s a relationship that has been built and maintained over three generations. In the case of Cushing Academy, while it may seem they’ve traded a collection of 20,000 books for a database holding 300,000, what they lost are those years of acquisitions, of decisions made by professionals with the best interest of the students in mind.

Even after working in the library for over ten years, I still get a thrill when I tear open the latest packages,  gritty with dust and dirt, often battered and torn, like a message sent from the other side of the world cobbled together from a hundred sources by a single hand for us to share with anyone who cares to drop in. These relationships are what make a library collection unique, and this is what is lost when we get rid of the books.


About M.C. Smith View all posts by M.C. Smith

6 responses to “To Book or Not to Book

  • pat

    Thanks to a link posted by one of Dr. Smith’s friends and admirers I was fortunate to find and read his post.

    I found his comments tremendously insightful. And, I also find the multi-media libraries a delight to my senses. Their librarians are on the creative edge of technology past, present, and future.
    When I need assistance they know how to direct me through the different media searches to the one or two that will meet my initial research needs most appropriately.

    I can’t imagine a more exciting time to be part of libraries and library science. They have to determine learning styles and learning readiness best suited to each individual as they direct and facilitate the new and experienced open library user.

    It is this wonderful availability, sometimes at the touch of a finger, of such diverse resources from all around the world and varied formats that seems to bring the already living world of books to an even higher level of liveliness and joy for each patron.

    But, as Dr. Smith points out, there are just cases when having the actual book in your hands is still the very best way to enter into the author’s thought process in order to make the information part of your own.

    Dr.Smith, thank you this post and the multiple aspects that bring the written word to life to each of us.

    I too thrill at holding and using many of my ancient texts. Somehow they often make the come alive in ways they never will on my computer screen.

  • pat

    Dr.Smith this was an exceptionally insightful post.

    I believe this has to be one of the most exciting times to be a librarian and part of library science.

    Whether one is a new or experienced user of the multi-media libraries the librarian uses all their skill to both direct and facilitate the patron through the multiple resources available to the one or two most appropriate formats for their initial research.

    I too thrill when using some of my ancient texts as often they bring the words alive in ways my computer screen fails.

    I was linked to your post by one of your longtime friends and admirers. I am thankful for her thoughtfulness.

  • The Smell of Kindles | The Line

    […] of the Persian Collection at Harvard’s Widener Library. (That’s not his real title.) His recent post on a northeastern private school turning their collection entirely into Kindles has been kicking around in my head enough for me to finally write about it. This does seem to be […]

  • Anna

    That was a powerful post. Not only is it a treat to get an insight into the real adventures of a librarian (not like the stupid movies called “The Librarian”) pulling bits and pieces of information out of Iran like artifacts from the ground, but the way you write about it is so emotive that we get to vicariously experience your excitement when you open a package from one of your vendors. The entry was deeply appreciated.

    I sense ambivalent feelings about hard copies of books – from rotting flesh to missives from “the other side of the world cobbled together from a hundred sources by a single hand for us to share with anyone who cares to drop in,” is a bit of a descriptive opposition.

    The main point, that exchanging a collection honed over generations with whatever amazon feels like sending you is very well taken, BUT, my own experience with elementary and high school libraries is that librarians have to make decisions to shed books that are older and that nobody takes out to maintain room for incoming (possible) treasures. My elementary school librarian would sometimes give me books she was shedding (by my favorite authors, for example) when I would go back to visit. So in terms of the likely contents of a small primary/secondary school library – there’s likely few things in the physical collection that wouldn’t be included in amazon’s 300,000 odd books.

    As for the smell of old books – maybe don’t discount it so quickly. First of all, the smell might be mold spores, but so is gorgonzola cheese. And penicillin. And a lot of the flavors and smells that are precious to us (take the scent-base for many colognes, musk, made from animal glands that supposedly contain pheromones) come from disgusting things if we think to hard. Soy sauce. Mushy Peas. BEER!!!! Even bread is produced by yeast, which are closer to mold spores than to doves and crows.

    Maybe the coming generation will never build that association of excitement with the smell of mold spores and decay, but I can’t change my life experience to eradicate that olfactorily stimulated memory pathway. And I feel nostalgic for the smell and the weight and the feel of turning pages and the surprise of finding someone’s scribbled note in pencil defacing a page. It’s not from across the world, but it’s survived time like an artifact of someone else’s, someone from another generation’s, response that you can compare with your own.


  • Min

    Hello. Very interesting Blog. Not really what i have searched over Google, but thanks for the information.

  • Rosetta Barnicle

    A roommate encoraged me to check out this site, nice post, interesting read… keep up the cool work!

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