Cushing Academy e-Library Update

I found an online transcript of a live chat with the headmaster of Cushing Academy, Dr. James Tracy, talking about their transition to a bookless library. Here are some highlights:

We at Cushing LOVE books – so much that we want our students to have access to millions of them anywhere on campus, not just twenty thousand in the library.   We also are not eliminating books altogether.   Teachers can still assign printed books in their courses and students are encouraged to read printed books for pleasure.

Cushing is a laptop school.   Every student has a laptop for use in the classroom; those on financial aid are provided laptops free of charge.   Every classroom also has a Smart Board, with direct access to the Internet.
All of the books, journals, and data that our library will have available electronically will now be immediately available via wi fi to every student instantaneously in every classroom – and, in fact, anywhere on campus.
We also are providing Kindles and Sony Readers for students who want to read in a more eye-friendly format.   Currently, we are providing 18 of those, because we think students will do most of their research on their laptops.   We will purchase as many as we think the community needs as we get a sense this year of the demand for Kindles and Sony Readers circulating from the library.

One of the biggest challenges ahead is to work out the copyright issues that are holding up some of the access and standardization, especially for new material.   Cushing hopes to work with Amazon and other companies to build models that are profitable for them and feasible for schools.

We are providing all of this free of charge to each student.   Cushing is admittedly an affluent private school with extensive resources, so we are in something of a privileged position in this regard.
We do believe, though, that pioneers like Cushing will build the paradigm that, as costs come down with technological progress, will make this available to even the poorest schools in the developing world at accessible cost.

All of Cushing’s administrators spent the summer testing Kindles and Sony Readers.   We fell in love with them and read all of our novels on them now.   It is great to be on a plane with hundreds of books in your hand!

We believe that the costs will actually come down dramatically in the coming years and that the models which Cushing and others are now fine-tuning will make it easier for public school students to have cheap -even free – access to all of the great literature and cultural achievements of human civilization on a scale many orders of magnitude greater than what they can garner from a tiny school library today.

I give the headmaster points for acknowledging that they can do this because they are richer than God, as the saying goes. I do wonder whether encouraging students to read books for pleasure carries much water when you’re getting rid of your book collection. Teens are notoriously adept at spotting when grownups are not walking the walk.

I recently read about another laptop school in much more humble circumstances. Actually it’s a whole laptop school system. As of this month, every student in Uruguay will have an XO laptop of their own and wifi at their school. Under Plan Ceibal [English link on this page], Uruguay’s government has bought a laptop for every student and is connecting every school to their educational network to provide them with internet access and educational materials, including books. Compare this with Chile’s Maletín Literario, in which cases of books are sent to needy families. It will be interesting to see how all of these experiments turn out.

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16 comments on “Cushing Academy e-Library Update

  1. AndrewL says:

    “We fell in love with them and read all of our novels on them now. “
    Man, I hate this kind of rhetoric.

    Anyways, I'm not sure any kind of rationalization from them is going to convince me it's a good idea to GET RID of their existing books. Why not run this idea in parallel, rather than as a replacement?

  2. Sylvia says:

    But where would they put the espresso machine? 😉 It seems they will be putting a teacher's lounge in the old library, along with the coffee shop, meeting space, and study carrels. Sort of reminds me of how the provincial government here wanted to turn the marble-columned Legislative library into their own private offices and schmoozing zone. Why should books get all the nice architecture? /sarcasm

  3. Jeff says:

    “We are providing all of this free of charge to each student.”

    I think what the headmaster means is that he's not charging students and their families directly for these new services. When tuition is $31,000 per year, nothing is “free,” so someone's paying for it, whether the parents of students who don't receive financial aid or the alumni whose donations built the school's endowment.

    I know I'm a terrible nitpicker, but I hate when schools charge a ton of money and then claim that use of the gym, tennis courts, computer facilities, etc., is “free.”

  4. Stefanie says:

    “We at Cushing LOVE books – so much that we want our students to have access to millions of them anywhere on campus, not just twenty thousand in the library.”

    Right, because students are going to be walking across the quad and feel a sudden desire seize them to read a book right at that very instant. Going to the library to borrow a book is so inconvenient. And apparently they have never heard of a thing called interlibrary loan as a method to obtain books that the campus library does not own. And it sounds like the ereaders are more for the school administrators than the students. The only bright spot is that maybe with all their money they can actually manage some feasible copyright solutions that will benefit other schools. But that's probably hoping for too much.

  5. Boris says:

    I'm still confused here. Most of the millions of books that Google has scanned are not available due to copyright laws and therefore can't be used by the students. Are they using math and science books in the public domain (pre-1928 in the USA) for their classes? Are the textbook publishers offering enough e-textbooks that students have materials for their education in the humanities, socials sciences, physical sciences, and fine arts?

  6. Sylvia says:

    You're right, Jeff, and they even charge an extra “technology fee” for things like internet access and tech support.

    Excellent point, Stefanie. A library is as big as it's interlibrary network. I thought the comment about copyright was interesting. I guess they don't have all the details worked out yet. I've seen some discussions on e-libraries that show some people think it means unlimited copies of books will be available. I suspect the truth will be more like my local audiobook library system, where you “take out” books for a period and they can't be “taken out” by others at the same time, and they vanish from your computer when the loan period is over. — Ah, if only people were siezed by the sudden desire to read while they were walking around. 😉

  7. Sylvia says:

    I don't know, Boris. The school may be jumping the gun a little. Neither general e-books nor e-textbooks seem quite ready for this sort of application. Google is still mired in lawsuits, and e-textbooks are still being tested.

  8. Boris says:

    Sylvia and Stephanie, “unlimited” or at least millions and millions of copies of books will be provided, but unlimited access will not. Google will make money off of the subscription services and access fees. See point #13 in the following FAQ (the entire thing is a good read)
    http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2009/04/the-fight-over-the-worlds-greatest-library-the-wiredcom-faq/

  9. Sylvia says:

    Boris, I think it goes without saying that there will be a cost to access these books. The copyright holders, publishers, and Google all have to be paid for their work, which is as it should be. I can't see Google getting greedy over this, though. This is not a necessity. We can do very well without it, especially with interlibrary loan, so the price has to be reasonable. Who really needs access to every book ever written? Perhaps scholars and that's about it. I can't even read all the books on my shelves, never mind all the books available at my public library, university library, and interlibrary loan system! The last thing I need is access to every macramé book published in the 70s. 😀

  10. Stefanie says:

    I'm sure social anthropologists might find those macrame books fascinating. I think my mom still has some stashed away in a closet somewhere. She could probably also provide several finished artifacts as well 😉

  11. Sylvia says:

    Heh. It's funny how craft trends come and go. It seems wildcrafting is out now, judging by the books on the library sale cart.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Free latops and WiFi coverage in schools isn't good for learning; it's good for Facebook.

  13. Anonymous says:

    * laptops –> I think I proved my point.

  14. Sylvia says:

    LOL! Maybe you should start a blog and give us the insider's view of Cushing. 😉

  15. Jeff says:

    Your joke about macramé actually raises a serious point: Given a virtually infinite amount of stuff that needs to scanned but only limited time, staff, and resources to do it, someone will essentially be serving as an editor and deciding which subjects take priority. That's less of a problem when the macramé books and something more earth-shattering are all equally accessible in the stacks of a library–but when you start to teach students that everything worth knowing has been scanned or is close to being scanned, then they start to accept the narrative of history, culture, and ideas shaped by the decisions of bureaucrats. To neglect to teach students about unscanned books is to let them fundamentally misunderstand both the present and the past.

  16. Sylvia says:

    Well, I suspect that even if Google can't or won't scan everything, they'll still have a lot more than any library system currently has access to. Libraries are much more constrained by space and budget than a commercial database is, I reckon.

    I have a feeling that the “bureaucrats” (ahem) in our libraries, where Google books will be delivered, will do an excellent job of keeping Google honest. I can't really see Google doing anything to endanger their reputation for providing unfettered access to information.

    But yes, students should be told that whatever historical record they have access to is only part of the story, told from a particular angle. That would be true even if every film, photograph, painting, drawing, carving, and written account ever created were available to everyone.

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