The bookless campus — with cappucino

For $44,000 a year, parents can send their sons and daughters to Cushing Academy, a Massachusetts boarding school that boasts a “bookless campus,” reports Roger Kimball in Barbarians at the Gate,

Actually, the headmaster, James Tracy, opened the gate, The New Criterion reports. He sees books as an “outmoded technology.”

Cushing is disburdening itself of its library’s 20,000 books and spending $500,000 to establish a “learning center” — the name, the Globe reports, is tentative, but whatever they settle on you can be sure the scare quotes will be appropriate. Of course, once you dump a library’s books, you have a lot of extra space to fill, so Cushing . . . will be spending $42,000 for some large flat-screen monitors to display data from the Internet as well as $20,000 for “laptop-friendly” study carrels. In place of the reference desk, the Globe reports, Cushing is building “a $50,000 coffee shop that will include a $12,000 cappuccino machine.”

When I was in high school in the ’60s, our library was renamed the “Instructional Materials Center.” I got in trouble with the library staff for making fun of the change in the school newspaper. But we still had books.

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  1. It’s idiotic. Throwing the baby out with the bath water. Why not leave the library as is and add additional resources? The students will use what is useful.

  2. Richard Nieporent says:

    I wonder if they had a copy of Fahrenheit 451 in their library.

  3. Without knowing the specifics but having been in public and private schools, I would point out that the books were probably great when bought but weren’t being replaced as needed. The new books weren’t being purchased, or used if they were. Somebody made the leap to “Kindle” is cheaper.

    “The students will use what is useful.” Obviously, this person has not been in education recently. There isn’t a student alive who would voluntarily use a book when Google is at hand. The library was most likely devolving into a place for computer stations and tables, with books stored “over there behind the SmartBoard.”

    They probably had several encyclopediae — how’s that working out for a library in this age of Wikipedia and Google? I’m not saying that the Internet is preferable but it’s the resource chosen by the students.

    If librarians are honest with themselves, they have to admit that their job descriptions are rapidly changing and their collections are becoming outdated or simply ignored.

    I applaud the gamble. At least the experiment is being done with private money in a voluntary setting — anyone who can afford Cushing can afford another, equally desperate for tuition, private school.

    It is now up to the public school community to WAIT for this experiment to run it’s course, for the data to be crunched as to it’s effectiveness and for the surveys to be compiled detailing how the educational experience changed as a result. Did the teachers notice a drop-off that can be correlated to the library changes?

    I for one, would like to know. Our library is rapidly changing, too. The librarian is putting in more workstations and the shelves are gradually moving back to the wall and closer together so they take up less space. As she retires books, the ones she purchases are less likely to be subject-oriented and more likely fiction, magazines, and other light-reading material.

    While I’m sure I don’t like it, I have no evidence that the kids will miss the books. I also can’t see that the faculty can or will do much about it – the English department’s been building “classroom sets” for years for all the books they need – they rarely visit the library anymore. History uses the computer labs more than anyone, even science and neither group has much in the way of “Books that aren’t Textbooks.” Heck, for most classes, the library is the “overflow” computer room rather than a reading resource.

  4. Why can we not “blend” best practices instead of thinking we have to go to one or extreme or the other? Yes, extremes bother…have fought this some in my own classroom when we could no longer purchase textbooks and could only purchase young adult novels.

    Life is better, though. Now have a 1:1 classroom…so now I have access and choose my “blend,” while having books in my student library.

  5. Let’s keep in mind that this sort of content-free trendiness is what’s been done, more or less depending on how vigorously someone’s rung the funding bell, in quite a few public schools. I live within walking distance of two high schools with “media centers” and neither one’s worth the cost.

  6. Curmudg…”I would point out that the books were probably great when bought but weren’t being replaced as needed”…being a curmudgeon, surely know know that “new” and “valuable” aren’t identical concepts.

    And the behavior of the school tends to transmit the idea that “new” and “valuable” *are* identical concepts: a meta-lesson, and not a very good one.

  7. It’s a private school. If it works for the tuition-paying parents, and donors, congratulations.

    If the students are kept busy with courses, extracurricular activities, and sports, they may not have time for pleasure reading during the school year. I could imagine that a student who uses textbooks, supplemented with online resources, for their academic content, may not check out books.

    I’m far more upset by public schools deciding to close their libraries in order to save money by firing the librarians.

  8. Andrew Bell says:

    I like to read in the tub. Am I the only one? A book is so simple. No electricity. Ultra-portable. No worries about format changes, crashes, etc.

    To some extent, textbook producers are hastening their own demise by putting out heavy crap that no one wants to take with them, let alone read.

  9. Parent 2: My experience in 4 districts in 3 distinctly different states is that school libraries, as generally constituted, are a waste of resources. Although some computer/internet use exists during the school day, the books are very lightly used, and the library seems to be primarily used as a study hall (which includes computer use). Many students do not have free time during the school day to use the library for research and the library often has limited-to-nonexistent before-and-after-school hours. That is why I routinely see large numbers of middle and high school students in the public libraries on evenings and weekends.

    I think a local middle/high school has the right approach; the town library is physically part of the school. There is a section of computer stations which is reserved for student use during the school day, but the other resources are available for both the students and the general population. There is no duplication of resources and the students benefit from the longer hours of the town library.

  10. While I got a lot of mileage out of the school libraries back in the day, I’m sure that ship has sailed. The internet (combined, perhaps, with Amazon and Kindle content) is a much easier tool to use for research than a library. There probably are things still only available in libraries, but they’re specialized and hardly part of the high school curriculum.

    Reading fiction for education or pleasure? Sadly, that ship seems to have sailed as well. We can mourn the loss to our culture, but sweeping back the tide doesn’t seem to be an option.

  11. People talk about how homeschooled kids are allegedly out of step with the culture. Won’t kids from a “bookless” school be even more out of step, regardless of all the people mourning the death of the book on here?

    (I suspect the rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated).

  12. CharterMom says:

    Hmmmm! I had an opportunity to visit Bentley College in Massachusetts last fall and the dean was proud to show off their new library where the books were all stored on moveable shelves (the high tech type that fold together) in the basement and the main areas of the library consisted of periodicals, small workrooms, workstations and comfortable chairs. The small workrooms had relatively large wall-mounted monitors so that groups could meet and discuss projects. Now Bentley is of course a college and a business-only college at that so the need for archives and older reference books is reduced but I do think they were very much in line with what their students’ needs were. Once I got over my initial shock of a library focused on computers and not books, I thought it made a lot of sense. To be honest — even though I was a voracious reader, I don’t think I ever remember checking a “leisure” book out of my university library back in the pre-personal computer days. The library was used for studying and research.

    Now Cushing is a high school and Bentley didn’t go bookless so the parallels aren’t perfect. And going bookless may be a bit extreme especially if all literature and leisure reading is dropped from the library. But I think the trend is definitely toward libraries focused on information rather than books.

  13. Mrs. Lopez says:

    My daughter’s university assigns research papers in most classes, and there has (so far) always been a limited number of internet sources allowed. I wonder if this will change very soon.

  14. mof4: interesting. My kids are voracious readers, and all their schools have insisted that the students have a book for leisure reading at all times. Those books have usually come from the school library. I think that’s a good idea–and I wouldn’t send one of my children to Cushing Academy.

    The shared public library/school library model would be a great solution, but sadly I don’t think my state would use it. I believe there are restrictions on funds used for building school facilities, so that schools focus on building school facilities, not town facilities.

  15. ponderosa says:

    Books, especially those vetted by teachers and librarians, have a degree of trustworthiness that most Internet sites do not. Letting kids use Google to do research exposes them to a huge array of junk information.

    I just dug up a paper I wrote in 10th grade on medieval London. I used four books from my high school library to find the info. I do not think that paper would have been any better if I’d had the Internet or computers. What I’m sure we’ll find, after spending trillions of dollars to replace books, is that the quality of student work and the amount of student learning have not increased ONE WHIT (we’ll find, too, that the complex new tools will siphon off lots of our time and attention because of their higher maintenance needs). But one good will result: the tech companies will be richer.

  16. ponderosa says:

    I’d add that we’ve ALREADY had a chance to see what universal Internet access has done for our kids. Computers have been in the schools for at least 15 years. Has there been a renaissance of achievement? And the trend to give every student a laptop has been shown to be a hideously expensive failure.

  17. Except for the hardware and software companies, and the purveyors of technical services!

  18. If I were teaching today, I wouldn’t allow the use of internet sources in any papers, at least not before college. But I would strongly recommend that students START with the internet, as a way to quickly find sources. Every decent wikipedia article has a whole list of good sources at the bottom. You read the article, get a good overview of the topic, then check out the books. It’s the card catalog and reference materials that the internet has replaced, not the books.

  19. To be honest — even though I was a voracious reader, I don’t think I ever remember checking a “leisure” book out of my university library back in the pre-personal computer days.

    In the post-personal computer days I did – unfortunately for my grades a chunk of books on some topic I was working on were on the shelf opposite a chunk of books on Jane Austen’s writing.

    I was easily distractable when my wanderings took me into the law library as well.