What makes a library a library? The obvious answer is books, but that question is getting trickier. Is a library without books still a library? One school says yes. In 2009, Cushing Academy, a private high school in Massachusetts took a bold leap into the digital future and replaced most of their library’s 20,000 books with digital texts.
The school’s slogan is “Learning at the Leading Edge” and they went for it on this one, putting all of their eggs in the downloadable-information basket. The only books that remain in their library are poetry and art books and some that donors have given the school.
The new space is called a learning center. Where the circulation desk was, there is now a cafe and where the stacks of books were, there are now work areas, seating and open spaces. The school has a "pay as you use it" arrangement with EB Library (EBL), a division of ebooks.com and has access to more than 200,000 academic e-books. Students can access materials through laptops, tablets, mobile devices or the learning center’s e-readers.
For new-school enthusiasts, this is a glimpse into the future of libraries and learning. For old-schoolers, it’s an extreme move vulnerable to technical problems and ever-changing format issues. And, it’s a dismissal of the benefits of bound books. It’s pretty much the same conversation that we’re all having about the merits and drawbacks of e-books and whether we want everything digitized.
My experience with today’s teens (remember, the library is in a high school) leaves no question in my mind that they would take effortlessly to this new system. For many of them, books are a relatively small part of their educational world. When research, writing and submission can all happen within the confines of the same laptop, standing up and scouring book spines and indexes is a hard case to make.
The idea of a learning center also implies that students are doing more than simply borrowing and reading texts. Tom Corbett, the library’s executive directory told The Journal that the library has “become a much more open and collaborative space, instead of just a place where users come to check out materials."
Many schools in the nation are still trying to get current with textbooks, let alone outfitting students with laptops and e-readers, so it may be a while before this model is widespread, but, the transformation of libraries is happening. Whether Cushing Academy’s move seems brilliant or over-eager, one thing is certain: it has turned a page in the story of libraries.