Saturday, September 05, 2009

Bad Ideas in Tech Part II: Boston prep school eliminates all (paper) books in its library

So, get this: Boston prep school Cushing Academy has spent $500,000 on a new “learning center” to replace its traditional paper-and-ink book library.

Excerpt from the Boston Globe article:

“In place of the stacks, they are spending $42,000 on three large flat-screen TVs that will project data from the Internet and $20,000 on special laptop-friendly study carrels. Where the reference desk was, they are building a $50,000 coffee shop that will include a $12,000 cappuccino machine. And to replace those old pulpy devices that have transmitted information since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1400s, they have spent $10,000 to buy 18 electronic readers made by and Sony. Administrators plan to distribute the readers, which they’re stocking with digital material, to students looking to spend more time with literature. Those who don’t have access to the electronic readers will be expected to do their research and peruse many assigned texts on their computers.
'Instead of a traditional library with 20,000 books, we’re building a virtual library where students will have access to millions of books,' said Tracy, whose office shelves remain lined with books. 'We see this as a model for the 21st-century school.’”

Where are the problems with this approach, besides the basic horror of eliminating 20,000 perfectly good books? (Some of the below are touched on in the article--some not.)
  • Sometimes you want a single-use device. Like a book. Because, you know, people can get distracted by other stuff <facebook>that</facebook> <twitter>computers</twitter> <hulu>can</hulu> <porn>do</porn>. [OMG! WTF?]
  • 18 e-book readers subbing in for 20,000 books? These guys have now turned 20,000 access points into 18 (and yeah, users are encouraged to use their own laptops, but will those laptops have access to all of the e-books provided by the library? Will all the 20K books eliminated be available in digital form? When they say they're turning 20,000 books into 'millions,' have they considered the reality of DRM? Most of the books that students will want will need to be purchased, not Googled).
  • It's not just about access: They've also turned 20,000 breakage/loss points into 18. Replacing a $30 book is not a major budgetary issue. Replacing a $500 e-reader certainly is--and it doesn’t help that they’ve decided to put a $50,000 coffee shop in the “learning center,” which presumably will help fund the renovation, but may well produce the unproductive combination of liquid + electronics on a regular basis.
I love technology, but I also love real, physical books (and magazines and newspapers). And there’s room for both in this world, if the idiots who are in charge of things could just recognize that changing business models mean “adaptation is necessary” rather than “extinction is inevitable.”

Also, progress purely for the sake of progress is not a smart idea--because sometimes, ahead of the curve means over a cliff.

(image: Boston Globe)

Posted via email from originalspin's posterous


Blogger Eric said...

I love books, but I was listening(!) to Robert McNamara's In Retrospect. He mentioned a secret memo done by the CIA that suggested that an unfavorable outcome in Vietnam would not harm the long-term interests of the United States. Since I always carry a small notebook along, I jotted down a couple of notes. When I got to my computer I googled a couple of words from the title of the memo and was taken to several options the first of which was to some lines in a Google book by Harold Ford, who had written this book on the history of CIA involvement in Vietnam. The entire book was online so I could check references and one was to the document which McNamara had never seen until he did research for his memoir. I then googled the title of the memo and the entire document was available as a pdf file, an exact replica of the memo that had only been seen by Johnson, in its entirety, having been declassified. That's not possible in the printed world. The whole search required less than 10 minutes. It's an historian's wet dream.

So when I hear that a school has dispensed with books in favor of digital access, I don't get too concerned since I'm interested in content and learning, not physicality and nostalgia.

7:45 PM  

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