Update on Cushing’s all-digital library

Update on Cushing Academy, the school that ditched its print collection for Kindles &c — worth knowing about now that the academic year is underway. Some pros, some cons, not a lot of detail. Interesting that a wide variety of administrators, including a library administrator, are quoted approvingly (I wish I could’ve been around for that decision-making process). Depressing money quote:

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 β€” I just barely ever went.”

4 thoughts on “Update on Cushing’s all-digital library

  1. I remember years ago, Chris and I worked on an idea for an electronic book reader. (Obviously, we never got so far as taking our idea to anyone who would have had the necessary electronic and engineering expertise to make it anything more than dreaming on paper. Ah well.) One of the ideas we had was that if you could just get one of good enough quality, and solve the copyright issues to the publishers’ satisfaction, you could replace those bulging backpacks I remembered from high school (5 AP-level books one year, and precious little time to get to my locker) with one electronic reader and perhaps a pocket full of disks. That definitely appealed.

    We never considered the possibility of removing all the paper books from the library.

    My main concerns about e-readers center around pictures, children, and pre-existing books. These are separate concerns — I think pictures are absolutely critical for biology textbooks, for instance, and wouldn’t like to imagine a chemistry or physics text without them, either. The Kindle is, I believe, only black-and-white, and I don’t know of any other reader that’s gone beyond that. What’s more, I know the Kindle can display PDFs (and the DX does so natively), but it’s understandably optimized for print; I haven’t heard any discussion of what sort of job it does displaying even black-and-white pictures. There are a lot of wonderful authors (Chaucer included) for whom black-and-white text is all you need — but there’s a whole world of books beyond that, for which it is insufficient. (And how much cooler would Chaucer be with reproductions of some of the really wonderful illuminated manuscripts and old type fonts?) We’ve spent a long time getting to the point where color pictures can be an expected part of books on most subjects; I’d hate to lose that just to convert to the new technology (even if it is vastly lighter than the old for carrying an entire library around).

    In light of the picture issue, and the degree to which children rely on and are drawn to pictures in books, it shouldn’t be any surprise that I haven’t heard even a peep about children’s books in electronic form. But even if the picture issue were solved, there remain a few more. (1) Hinges. Kids are attracted to the hinge aspect of books as well. Not, I suppose, a huge deal, but it’s another thing that draws kids to books, and anything that draws kids to books is a Good Thing. Kids also love books with flaps, perhaps because it’s an extension of the hinge attraction, perhaps because they like seeing hidden stuff revealed; sure, you can have things that pop up when you click in a specific place or whatever, but I don’t think the attraction there would be of similar strength. (2) Screen size. There are some children’s books that are of smaller size — Beatrix Potter springs to mind — but many are much larger, and benefit greatly from this in terms of both illustrations and what can be done with the text. The Kindle DX has the largest screen size I’ve seen out there and doesn’t come close to the size of many children’s books. Solving this one is perhaps simply a matter of waiting for the technology to improve and the prices to come down, but still, it certainly hasn’t been solved yet. (3) Who’s going to hand a 9-month-old a $100+ electronic gadget and trust him/her not to drop it, hit it against things, or drop it in the toilet? Or chew on it? We make little kids board books for really good reasons — they need something that is really sturdy and yet similar enough to the books we read for them to enjoy the immitation aspects. Keeping board books, and only replacing the paper-page books with electronic versions, is a possibility, but then we lose the “just like Mommy/Daddy” aspect of little kids “reading” that is both very cute and, often, a large part of getting the kids interested to begin with.

    And then there’s the fact that there are tons of great books already out there that no one’s talking about converting to electronic form. The ones that are no longer copyrighted are often available through Project Gutenberg and the like, but that leaves 70ish years of great books that are in libraries that no one’s talking about converting to Kindle or whatever. I see this issue most acutely in the books I check out for homeschooling my kids — which of course also suffer from the picture and screen size issues mentioned above — but I’m pretty sure that adult collections suffer from this as well. I’d hate to lose that wealth of literature and information for the sake of a technology upgrade. In short, I can see the value in going for a Kindle-only selection of current textbooks (assuming they could solve the picture problem), but I can’t see removing all the books from the library shelves. (Of course, we have managed to convert pretty well from records to tapes to CDs to MP3s, and from VHS to DVD; perhaps conversion from paper to electronic books is simply a matter of giving it more time. But at this time, the conversion is certainly far from complete, and far from certain to happen, and so I wouldn’t ditch the entire paper book collection yet.)

    To comment more specifically on Cushing, I also can’t see converting the entire school library from a library to a coffee shop. There are benefits to both places, in terms of simply being there with a book you like, and I can see value to having both types of atmosphere present in a school, or even in the school’s library, but yes, there ought to be a place where you are expected to Not Talk.



  2. Cushing’s high school only, so the children’s book thing isn’t an issue for them, but I agree it would be in other places. (Personally, my biggest worry about digital children’s books would be replacement costs — they’re much less forgiving than paper about having things spilled on them.) And yeah, pictures are a big concern for me too. I see long-term that digital might be a *better* format for some kinds of textbooks (e.g. physics or calculus, so you can see things moving, or change parameters and see the graph re-form), but black and white isn’t good enough for, e.g., science, or art. I’m also concerned about annotation features — apparently you *can* annotate but I hear the support is not great, and that’s a crucial concern for students.

    There is PDF support but I’m told that they’re slow to resize and hard to navigate. Pure text, of course, doesn’t care how big the page is because it can just lay itself out in whatever font size is convenient and however many words fit, fit, but if you can’t see a full-page PDF on your screen and have to zoom in, then you have to scroll around side-to-side, and it’s just a feature of the e-ink technology (which is in many ways awesome) that it’s slow.

    I’ll note also that my 9th grade honors students were always *very* jarred when we moved from book II (which had lots of color pictures in a sort of kids’-book-illustration style) to book III (which is predominantly text, with small black-and-white illustrations which are replicas of real objects in a realistic style). The first thing all of them said, every year, is “where are the pictures?” It was a big sign to them that they were using the big-boy book now, and they weren’t entirely sure how they felt about that. Maybe that’s less of a concern with older kids, and maybe it’s not as intimidating when it’s in a digital format, though.

    (And as long as I’m jumping around, I’ll note that I looked at Cushing’s web site and they talk a lot about 21st century skills and technology, and appear to have substantially revamped their curriculum around these themes, so the library move should be seen as part of a larger school vision which it apparently fits into well. That doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea, but it should be kept in context.)

    Other literature — well, there is Google Books, which is digitizing roughly everything in the universe ;). As for the things under copyright, they can be extremely difficult to get into new formats, because in many cases the rightsholders can no longer be found, or the effort of tracking them down exceeds any possible benefit. (aka, it’s important to remember that logistical considerations are not necessarily the same as moral ones.) Mind you I wonder how many of those books are of interest to the population in question. (I don’t view what Cushing’s doing as a forum on what *all* libraries should do, although I think it’s important for all libraries to pay attention; all libraries make choices based on their own patrons. Cushing’s choices wouldn’t be good for you, but you’re not one of their patrons; their patrons may be the people most likely to appreciate an all-digital library. I also suspect they could acquire print volumes through interlibrary loan if they really needed to.)

    I do also wonder about the state of textbook digitization, which is something I know very little about. I know that textbook publishers are moving increasingly in the direction of electronic content, but I don’t know how many textbooks are available in digital form, much less written natively in digital form. If your *textbooks* as well as your *library* are constrained to be digital, how much of a constraint does that put on curriculum? Less and less as time goes on, surely, but now?

    Places where you are expected to Not Talk: er, you went to high school, right? πŸ˜‰ Perhaps they felt that was a losing battle and they were better off embracing an explicitly social workspace; it may be a cliche that the millennials are all collaborative, but certainly most of the ones I taught gravitated in that direction. Our school’s library had the expectation that you keep your voices at a level which facilitated concentration and decorum, but not the expectation that you keep silent or work individually.

    Of course there’s a question in there of how much leadership means meeting people where they are vs. trying to get them to move in a new direction, or what the relationship is between service and leadership in a library context….


  3. I can see a move to digital being a reasonable part of a school’s emphasis on technology, 21st c. skills, etc. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be enrolling my child in a school that eschewed all paper books — but clearly, I’m not their target audience, and as long as their target audience is large enough and wealthy enough to keep them financially feasible, they can do what they like. As is my wont, I simply took their action, and your reference to it, as an opportunity to rattle on in my own thoughts on the subject, whether it was relevant to them or not. πŸ™‚

    I actually see a number of advantages to digital textbooks (and to digital books in general, for that matter). I have a blind friend, and it has always been immediately apparent to me that, at least for anything that’s purely text, keeping it digital makes accessibility much much easier for her — give her a computer with a braille display and the ability to read whatever file format you’re dealing with, and she can read anything; the local public library, with its shelves upon shelves of paper books, is sadly inaccessible to her. And, as software that reads things aloud becomes more sophisticated, accessibility to people who are illiterate for whatever reason also improves (although, as is usual, the ability of such software to deal with scientific terms often lags). The adaptability of a digital book is actually a major draw for me, with the way my eyes have become so variable; the ability to change font size on the fly is very appealing to me, although all the e-book readers I’ve seen could stand to expand their font size selections if they truly want to reach the large print market. (And it’d be such an easy fix, I have a hard time imagining why they wouldn’t, except that they just haven’t thought about it. Most of them have large enough screens that adding a couple more font sizes wouldn’t be problematic.)

    The illustration issue is a real one for difficult subjects of all types, almost regardless of age — younger children have perhaps a greater need for pictures, but we all find them appealing (why is Rosetta Stone so popular in the self-taught foreign language arena?), and some subjects need them regardless of age/level (art, science, some math). So I agree: Adding color and the ability to handle pictures would be a major step towards making e-books a viable alternative. Improving the update speed (to allow for animated pictures) and screen size (to allow for larger pictures, PDFs, etc.) would also be big helps, and I can see the animated pictures providing e-books with a major advantage in some areas. (Visions of physics textbooks dance in my head….)

    Totally agree with you on replacement costs; that’s going to remain a major issue when thinking about e-books and small children. Not sure how to solve that one; you could, I suppose, come up with a small, cheap version, but then you’re likely abandoning the color, large screen size, etc., that are highly relevant to the illustration-heavy books young children need/prefer. The one possibility, I suppose, is if the market becomes so large-scale/mainstream that they can deal with a smaller profit margin per unit, the cost of technology goes way down, and they go for something more akin to the printer pricing model — make the initial investment in equipment cheap (cheap printer, cheap e-book reader), and assume that they’ll make most of their profit on the sale of ongoing supplies (expensive ink, expensive (relative to production cost) books). After all, the costs to deliver a book to a pre-existing e-book reader have got to be pretty minimal, once you’ve got the communication network in place, and yet Amazon is still charging around $10 per e-book. Keep their idea of a remotely-stored library that you can re-download to your specific e-book reader at need, add the ability to get a new reader for something more like $20ish, and I can see handing one to J now, at least with supervision. (Handing one to T, now, might actually be a more interesting debate. Ah, the effects of personality.)

    And I could totally see coming up with some sort of structure that allowed for an e-library, perhaps modeled off of something like the audio book borrowing scheme my library has now (which I haven’t used and therefore can’t fully explain, but they’ve worked it out somehow so I know it’s possible). That would have nice benefits in terms of making obscure books accessible in remote and/or poor locations without the costs inherent in shipping physical books around.

    In short, e-books already have some advantages, and technology improvements could lead to more. But they’re clearly not in a position to replace all paper books yet, and I have a hard time seeing how they could solve all the relevant issues to replace them universally in the future, although thinking “out loud” here has gotten me closer to admitting it’s possible, and I’ll be very interested to see how this all plays out as time goes on. Schools like Cushing making the switch have one role to play in pushing the improvement of e-books — they will, no doubt, push for further improvements, call curriculum publishers to ask for various textbooks to be made available in their preferred format, etc. People like me refusing to make the switch yet have, I think, another role to play in the improvement of e-books — the very reasons why I haven’t switched yet are the things Amazon et al. will want to address as they seek to expand their market.



    1. Yeah — that last paragraph, to me, is the key point. I don’t know that Cushing is doing the right thing here, but I think it’s very important that someone is testing out the space. The future’s going to have components that look like this, and it’s important for the system as a whole that we experiment, even if that means individual elements of the system get it wrong.


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