At the end of last week, there was an article in the Boston Globe talking about a prep school discarding all of their books and converting the library into an information center, complete with Kindles & Sony E-readers, plasma televisions streaming internet video, and coffee bar. Most notably in the article, the headmaster sees books as “an outdated technology, like scrolls before books”. The reaction on Twitter (where the article was linked to me) was mostly sadness and outrage at the decision. (Here’s a quick search regarding it.) I can’t say that my gut reaction wasn’t along those lines; but the more I think about it, the more such a decision makes sense to me.
From the collection development point of view, a non-fiction collection represents a static snapshot of the world as it understood at that moment. In general, from the moment a non-fiction book is printed, the information within starts becoming obsolete. On a long enough time line, this book will be replaced by a new one that reflects the new research, new understandings, and/or new information that has been uncovered on a subject. I will concede that some subjects are going to remain unchanged barring a revolutionary breakthrough. However, when it comes to non-fiction of dynamic subjects such as modern events, science, economics, computers, art, and sports, static print will inevitably be outdated on a regular basis. Within my own library system, parts of our print reference collection are being replaced by virtual reference library. The contemporary nature of subscription services and reference materials on a host of subjects (such as the ones I have named) make a virtual reference collection preferable to a print collection so as to reflect the most up to date information and make it universally available across all of our branches.
In terms of examining a fiction collection from a collection development point of view, the move by the prep school confuses me. Fiction literature, unlike its non-fiction counterpart, does not carry the burden of being dynamic and up to date. Why not keep print copies of the great classics, for they will always be the same? Keeping a print copy on hand couldn’t be that bad, could it? But I think the issue is beyond a collection one; this passage from the article was very telling to me:
School officials said when they checked library records one day last spring only 48 books had been checked out, and 30 of those were children’s books.
In my mind, it turns the issue into a circulation one. As I work on weeding our non-fiction collection at my branch, I’m looking at numbers as a factor as to whether or not I remove a book from the collection. (Don’t worry, it’s not the only factor.) But within your own library, if you have a book that doesn’t circulate, isn’t that the first step towards weeding it from the collection? In this drastic case, all of the books got weeded as one for anemic circulation numbers.
(Aside: In talking about this with The Unquiet Librarian, we are both left with the question: Where is the school librarian in all of this? I would presume under a gag order from the school, but there is no mention of a library staff member from the headmaster or the article. I would be curious what part this person has in the conversion process, if any.)
I think this type of move by a school is intriguing enough to see how it goes; an experiment, if you will. But I think the real question that librarians and library professionals should be asking themselves is this: are we married to a medium or a message? If we fight to preserve books for the sake of books, are we adding argument to our own irrelevancy? Nowhere in the article is it stated that reading is being discouraged; in fact, there is a distinct impression by one of the commenters that using online or e-readers is a second class citizen of reading. (William Powell: ““There are modes of learning and thinking that at the moment are only available from actual books,’’ he said. “There is a kind of deep-dive, meditative reading that’s almost impossible to do on a screen. Without books, students are more likely to do the grazing or quick reading that screens enable, rather than be by themselves with the author’s ideas.’’) To this point, I cannot agree. It is the words that matter, not the medium on which they are found. An idea does not morph or mutate when it moves from print to screen; only the form of the messenger that relays them.
It is my belief that one of my purposes as a librarian is connect a patron to the literature or information of what they desire regardless of the medium. If a patron wants something in a non-print format (audio, e-book, or video), then I should do my best to get it to them in their preferred format. To outright defend the removal of the print medium regardless of the underlying facts and circumstances is a rehearsal of one’s own prejudices against words found in forms other than print. Librarians are for intellectual freedom with no stipulation as to how the mental investigative process runs; in that capacity, we should look to champion such an ideal in all possible mediums, regardless of our personal preferences.
The strength of the future library collection is not in the total numbers of titles owned, but the number of different formats materials in the collection come in. The book will never die, but the printed page that it is most commonly found in may fade into the background as the paperless book revolution marches forward. This is an exciting time as the barriers to information access crumble away with each technological innovation cycle. This is a time to innovate our services and materials to match this future need.