A World Without Books?

Library for the Faculty of Philology at the Free University Berlin, Germany (partial) found here on - photographer unknown

A Massachusetts prep-school's library goes digital, offering its students the ability to access millions of books and countless journals and magazines -- and all hell breaks lose.

Ever since the computer and Internet offered alternatives to traditional sources of information, and e-readers began providing a new medium with which to enjoy books, there has been a growing debate over the role and function of the printed word in an increasingly digital world. Some see new devices such as the Kindle, the Edge, the Nook, and Apple’s upcoming iPad as an obvious evolution in the means of information exchange, while others see things like e-books as the destruction and devaluation of an integral part of culture.

Recently, an alteration in policy at the Cushing Academy, a Massachusetts prep-school, has caused an interesting chain reaction of critical articles that underscores the powerful tensions and anxieties caused by these developments.

The Cushing Academy announced in September of 2009 that it was replacing its massive library with a modern learning center. Instead of the typical repository of knowledge with its stacks and reference desks, the physical texts are going to be replaced with digital books available through the school's computers or its Amazon and Sony e-readers. The goal of the modernization was to provide students with a place that reflected the academic interests of a world that is going digital, with students now having access to countless online databases and millions of books.

Last September The Boston Globe published an article discussing the forthcoming changes to the East Coast prep school that highlighted both the potential benefits and the concerns that this new approach to learning would have on the students. ("Welcome to the Library. Say Goodbye to the Books" by David Abel, 4 September 2009) Some were naturally wary of the logistics of the changes -- especially in a world where e-readers are not cheap -- and lamented the loss of their beloved books, while others looked forward to the changes with optimism and hope. The headmaster of Cushing, James Tracy, was quoted as saying, "When I look at a book, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books."

This story was subsequently picked up by The New Criterion, a literary magazine that lists as one of its goals as "...engaging with those forces dedicated to traducing genuine cultural and intellectual achievement, whether through obfuscation, politicization, or a commitment to nihilistic absurdity." The magazine also lists as one of its accomplishments as, "...championing what is best and most humanely vital in our cultural inheritance and in exposing what is mendacious, corrosive, and spurious." ("Cushing Academy, RIP", October 2009). The article published in The New Criterion was opposed to Cushing's plan and stated that Tracy "betrayed his academic responsibility."

It was this article that prompted Pulitzer Prize winner and journalist Paul Greenburg to write a piece furthering the attacks against Tracy and the Cushing Academy in the e-magazine, Opinionated: Voices and Viewpoints on America and the World. The magazine, which is exclusively distributed through the Kindle, is divided into four sections: Liberal, Conservative, Independent, and Worldview.

Greenburg's article, titled "The War on the Book" (7 December 2009) appeared in the Conservative portion of the magazine, and offered a rather bleak view of Tracy's plans for Cushing and the future of books. He states that Tracy's goals are another sign of the "shiny, color-coded cultural Apocalypse", and added that he was first made aware of the problem while reading the article in the New Criterion a journal which he says warns him of the "continuing collapse of Western Civilization" – of which the changes to Cushing’s libraries were another exemplar.

Both the article in The New Criterion and Greenburg's piece in Opinionated, jumped on Tracy's comment where he compared books to scrolls. They viewed this remark as being representative of contempt for books and emblematic of a "bleak future". The New Criterion article’s author wondered if the Academy's Board of Trustees knows, "what a disaster this shortsighted capitulation to trendiness is for the school." Both pieces were angered by the seemingly cavalier attitude of the Cushing Headmaster.

The concerns underscored by these arguments are revealing and speak to the anxieties of several book lovers concerned with the various digital transitions taking place throughout society, but upon closer inspection are also highly problematic for an entirely different reason. One concern is the degree of outrage with which Tracy has been attacked by his critics. Both the articles in Opinionated and The New Criterion present the Headmaster’s decision as being emblematic of a major decline in our society.

While some may disagree with his plans and his comment comparing books to archaic scrolls, Tracy must ultimately be judged on his primary responsibility: educating his students. Tracy's job is to facilitate learning, not to be a guardian of a cultural aesthetic or the gatekeeper of public taste. He freely admits on the school's website that he personally loves books and is an “avid bibliophile”, but in the context of the school it is his responsibility to take care of the interests of the students.

Since we live in an increasingly digital world and the students heading to the Cushing Academy are young people who are largely raised on computers and the Internet, Tracy made the decision that he thought was best for the student population. Currently, Internet databases and academic websites offer students the ability to access millions of books and countless journals and magazines. Furthermore, it helps reduce the problems of the limited availability of texts and the time constraints of inter-library loans.

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