Clockwise from far right, students Salma Makkar, Thomas Pacheco, Cameron Akers and Jennifer Tonti talk with teacher Nancy Boyle, center, in Cushing Academy's new bookless library.
Clockwise from far right, students Salma Makkar, Thomas Pacheco, Cameron Akers and Jennifer Tonti talk with teacher Nancy Boyle, center, in Cushing Academy's new bookless library. Tina Antolini/NPR
An elite boarding school in Ashburnham, Mass., just spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on renovating its library. But Cushing Academy wasn't just redoing its walls and carpets. The school is getting rid of the actual, physical books in favor of going digital.
And the move — thought to be the first of its kind in the country — is worrying some librarians and book lovers.
From Stacks To Flat Screens
A year ago, Cushing Academy's library would have resembled any other, with its hushed atmosphere and tall stacks of books. But that's no longer the case.
There's a new cafe where the circulation desk used to be. Where bookshelves once stood, students now sit in easy chairs, studying or watching one of the three new flat-screen TVs. It's all part of what have been two substantial recent changes at Cushing's library. The first is removing most of the stacks. And the second is transforming the place into a hub of activity, to give what's now a largely virtual library a physical home and gathering space.
Sophomore Elsie Eastman says she's here all the time now. "I remember last year I barely went to the library," she says. "I loved the library — I just barely ever went."
Dean of Academics Suzie Carlisle says school officials had noticed the trend. She says surveys they conducted showed students weren't turning to printed materials for research. Instead, they were immediately going online.
"Part of our desire to move in this direction is to meet the students where they are most comfortable," Carlisle says. "And it's our responsibility as well to help students understand the emerging technologies that they are going to be faced with."
Carlisle says the library is trading its 20,000-volume collection for a database of millions of digital books. All students can read any of the books, either through the 68 Amazon Kindles cycling around campus or on the laptop that each of the school's 450 students is provided.
Headmaster James Tracy says Cushing's change has already upped the library's circulation numbers. He says having access to the content of books is what's important for students, and the format doesn't matter.
"If I look outside my window," Tracy says, "and I see my student reading Chaucer under a tree, it is utterly immaterial to me whether they're doing so by way of a Kindle or by way of a paperback."
Did The School Go Too Far?
The library's scrapping of printed books brought a surge of online indignation when it was announced last summer. Tracy says that's no surprise. He shares a love of books and what he calls a nostalgic attachment to flipping the pages.
But some bibliophiles say it's not just nostalgia. Camila Alire is president of the American Library Association. While she's all for libraries riding the wave of technological changes, she says the issue here is how far Cushing went.
"Students learn differently, and some students will take to digital resources and information technology like a duck takes to water," Alire says. "And then there are other students who learn by turning the pages, by handling the materials."
Plus, Alire says, most schools couldn't afford Cushing's move. Tom Corbett, the executive director of Cushing's library, doesn't dispute that, though he says the price is coming down every day. In fact, he says resources are why Cushing decided to go whole hog for digital.
"In order for librarians to do a good job, an exceptional job of focusing on online resources, they really need to move away from some of the other priorities they've had in the past," Corbett says. "And managing a large print collection is a lot of work."
'Without Books, You Lose The Feel Of A Library'
But how the library manages its new digital collection is still largely a work in progress, as is how the students receive it. Five literature students — who were clustered around a library table with their digital readers before them — were a little ambivalent.
They like their Kindles, but they don't love them. They say annotating is slow and annoying. And sophomores Cameron Akers and Thomas Pacheco are not totally convinced this change is the way the school should be going.
"Without the books, you kind of lose the feel of a library," Akers says. "It's a great study place, but I don't feel like I could read here anymore."
"And also, it's not really quiet anymore like a usual library is, anyway," Pacheco says.
"Yeah, a lot more distractions," Akers chimes in.
Whether their school is the vanguard of the 21st century or not, some Cushing students are still eager for the 'shush' of a librarian and immersion in a good, old-fashioned book.