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An elite boarding school in Massachusetts has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars renovating its library. Cushing Academy wasnt just redoing the walls and carpets or modernizing the stacks, it was getting rid of the actual, physical books. The schools library has gone digital and that had some librarians and book lovers worried, as Tina Antolini reports from member station WFCR.
TINA ANTOLINI: If you happened into the Cushing Academy library a year ago, you wouldve found a pretty typical hushed atmosphere and tall stacks of books. But thats not the case anymore.
(Soundbite of library)
ANTOLINI: Here, Im in the middle of the library and this is what it sounds like.
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ANTOLINI: Theres a new cafe where the circulation desk used to be, where there once were bookshelves. Students now sit in easy chairs studying, or watching three new flat-screen TVs. Its all part of what really have been two substantial changes at Cushings library. The first is getting rid of the stacks, most of them anyway. And the second is to transform this place into a hub of activity, to give whats now a largely virtual library a physical home and gathering space. Sophomore Elsie Eastman says shes here all the time now.
Ms. ELSIE EASTMAN: I remember last year I barely went to the library. Like, I loved the library, I just never really went.
ANTOLINI: Dean of Academics Suzie Carlisle says school officials had noticed that. She said surveys they conducted showed students werent turning to printed materials for research. They were immediately going online.
Ms. SUZIE CARLISLE (Dean of Academics, Cushing Academy, Massachusetts): And part of our desire to move in this direction is to meet the students where they are most comfortable. And its our responsibility, as well, to help students understand the emerging technologies that they are going to be faced with.
ANTOLINI: Carlisle says the library is trading its 20,000 volume collection for a database of millions of digital books. All students can access those books, either through the 68 Amazon Kindles cycling around campus or on the laptop that each student is provided. Headmaster James Tracy says Cushings change has already upped their circulation numbers. And he says its getting students access to the content of books that matters, not the format.
Mr. JAMES TRACY (Headmaster, Cushing Academy, Massachusetts): And if I look outside my window, and I see a student reading Chaucer under a tree, it is utterly immaterial to me whether they are doing so by way of a Kindle or by way of a paperback.
ANTOLINI: The librarys scrapping of printed books brought a surge of online indignation when it was announced last summer. Tracy says thats no surprise. He shares a love of books and what he calls a nostalgic attachment to flipping the pages. But some bibliophiles say its not just nostalgia. Camila Alire is president of the American Library Association. While shes all for libraries riding the wave of technological changes, she says the issue here is how far Cushing went.
Professor CAMILA ALIRE (President, American Library Association): In terms of making that particular school library an either or. Students learn differently, and some students will take to digital resources and information technology like a duck takes to water. And then there are other students who learn by turning the pages, by handling the material.
ANTOLINI: Plus, Alire says, most schools couldnt afford Cushings move. Tom Corbett, the executive director of Cushings library doesnt 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.
Mr. TOM CORBETT (Executive Director, Library, Cushing Academy, Massachusetts): In order for librarians to really do a good job, an exceptional job of focusing on online resources, they really need to move away from some of the other priorities theyve had in the past. And managing a large print collection is a lot of work.
ANTOLINI: But how the library manages its new digital collection is still largely a work in progress, as is how the students receive it. Five lit students clustered around a library table with their digital readers before them were a little ambivalent. They like their Kindles, but they dont love them. They say annotating is slow and annoying. And sophomores Cameron Akers and Thomas Pacheco were not totally convinced this change is the way the school should be going.
Mr. CAMERON AKERS: Without the books, you kind of lose the feel of a library. Its a great study place, but I dont feel like I could read here anymore.
Mr. THOMAS PACHECO: And also, like, its not really quiet anymore like a usual library is, you know.
Mr. AKERS: Yeah, a lot more distractions.
ANTOLINI: Whether their school is the vanguard of the 21st century or not, some Cushing Academy students are still eager for the shush of a librarian and the immersion in a good, old-fashioned book.
For NPR News, Im Tina Antolini in Western Massachusetts.