Turning the Page: Printed Books Are Losing out to Digital Resources, Bringing Profound Change to School Libraries While Provoking a Fierce Debate over the Very Act of Reading

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Did you hear what James Tracy did?

If you haven't, you should consider spending more time at the faculty watercooler, where Tracy has been a trending topic since last summer, when as headmaster of Cushing Academy, a prep school about 90 minutes west of Boston, he began to rid the campus library of virtually all of its books in favor of a digital-only collection.

It was a move that, whether intended or not (Tracy says not), has caused bookshelves to wobble all across K-12, and has challenged educators on how much 21st century learning they're willing to tolerate. It also instantly made Tracy into a target of considerable loathing.

Judging from the response since the Cushing library went all digital, Tracy is either a monster, a showman, a technotopian, and a cold-blooded book killer ... or a pioneer, a seer, a leader, and a groundbreaker. Or he is merely as he says he is: a realist.

"I think it's very clear that the future of reading, the future of learning, is electronic-based," he says.

Believing so, Tracy retooled Cushing's library into a digital learning commons, with new furniture, interactive technologies, and small study spaces in areas where shelves once held 20,000 printed works. Most of those were snapped up by the school's department heads. By the end of summer, what's left will be donated books and some children's books intended for kids of faculty members. Library reading is now done electronically, either via downloads from one of Cushing's web-based e-book providers or on one of the school's nearly 1-to-1 supply of Kindle and Sony e-readers. Students comb through reference materials on online databases that provide them with access to countless journals that, unlike bound reference books, Tracy points out, are continually updated. "And, at the same time, they're never off the shelf," he says. "They're never being used by somebody else. They're always available.

"It is inexorable," Tracy says of the move away from print, "and the proper response, since it is inexorable, is to get ahead of the curve, not insist upon a 19th century mode of learning and teaching that is doomed and increasingly irrelevant, and try to incorporate the best values of the tradition we've received into the best use of the technology we're developing."

Drawing Distinctions

Fair enough. That's a notion educators by and large have come around to themselves. Where Tracy draws their tire is with his matter-of-fact, even buoyant dismissal of bound books as being worth, one might say, no more than the paper they're printed on.

"I think that people tend to fetishize the printed book," he says, arguing that a preference for holding a book over reading a screen is strictly aesthetic, not substantive.

"Books smell differently than an e-reader," Tracy says. "The text looks different on a page than it does on an e-reader. But by the same token a horse smells differently than an automobile; it moves at a more leisurely pace; it may be more organic. But I don't know anybody, except for aesthetic purposes, riding a horse today."

Theoretical arguments aside, Tracy says that digitizing the Cushing library wasn't meant as a statement on the nature of books. "We made a key distinction between reading a work of literature in a classroom and doing research. We made no decision about the use of books in the classrooms. Our library we viewed as principally a research resource. We concluded that the online resources that are available for research are already superior for a high school student to working through stacks of books in a 20,000-volume library."

Tracy may seem less of a maverick when you find that same conclusion is being drawn at many K-12 schools, causing electronic reference sources to supplant printed versions.

"Our nonfiction is just dying on the vine," says Carolyn Foote, librarian at Westlake High School in Austin, TX, which opened a new library a year ago. …

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