Cushing Academy, a swanky private school in northern Massachusetts, is ridding itself of books. As boston.com 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“When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,’’ said James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing and chief promoter of the bookless campus.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.