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Libraries without books: What is this world coming to?

February 12, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

In the age of the Kindle and the Nook and the upcoming iPad, and a world in which there are Facebook groups called “People Who Like to Read the Newspaper on Paper,” the New York Times recently posted a written debate titled “Do School Libraries Need Books?” The lightning rod for the discussion: a boarding school in Massachusetts that last fall decided to give away most of its books and turn its library into a digital center.

After reading all five viewpoints — from two educators, two authors and a library director — plus the multitude of comments this topic generated, here’s what I came away with:

  • Libraries need to be updated. This is true. But in the please-digitize-microfiche kind of way. Cushing Academy, the aforementioned school, is right in saying that research is done differently now — libraries need to keep up with the times. Getting rid of all physical books may seem bold, but it’s ridiculous. Sure, most students turn to the Internet to do research for a term paper, but when they have to read “Anna Karenina” for class, they pick up the book. And that makes sense. Update libraries, yes. Have the digital tools complement the physical ones. But take away the books and they’re no longer libraries.
  • Reading physical books rocks. Most people seem to agree with this. Many serious readers say there’s nothing quite like picking up a physical book and allowing yourself to get immersed in another world. Or turning back a page to laugh again at that one exquisite sentence or passage. All this without the distraction of an instant message, or checking your e-mail, or chirps from TweetDeck. Books make us focus and think. But I bet there is some overlap among the people who say this and those who are atwitter over the iPad. Humans are fickle. We aren’t consistent. We want it all. So if we were to get rid of all books at all libraries and turn them all into “digital centers,” it would spark a revolution. Maybe. (In the past few days, I’ve read quotes that were in both camps: “Once printed books go we are lost as a people. Lost. They are as necessary as water,” and, in a NYT article about possible higher prices for e-books, “They’re just books. I do other things besides reading.”)
  • Which reminds me: Reading physical newspapers rocks, too. Along the same vein — and despite the convenience of 24/7 updates online and being able to read about the same big, breaking news event from several different sources in a matter or minutes — I still like being able to keep the printed newspaper around for a couple of days or a week, and somehow coming across a short article I overlooked, or being amazed/dismayed by a typo in a 100-point headline, or finding a headline I wish I had written myself. (Believe me, the art of the headline is lost in the SEO-obsessed online world.)
  • We need serendipity. I love that word. In my world, it’s the feeling I get when I come across a book I had never heard of but find myself finishing in one day because it was just that good. Or the delight I feel over a perfectly crafted headline, or when I laugh for days over a newspaper cartoon I just happened to see. Of course, some of this is possible online, too, but I can’t say I have had the pleasure quite as often. StumbleUpon is cool, but it isn’t quite the same as actually stumbling upon something. Also, most of the time people search for specific things online — hence Google’s success. Put simply, taking away physical books and newspapers gives us fewer choices, and therefore fewer places to find serendipity.
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