Do libraries need books?

Note: Even more than usual, note the disclaimer. I am speaking my own mind, not that of my Library Director (quoted in this article) or my school.

Today’s New York Times includes an online Room for Debate feature: Do School Libraries Need Books? The debaters include James Tracy, Head of the now infamous in library circles Cushing Academy, and my fabulous boss Liz Gray.

The “debate” is worth reading in its entirety, but here are a few bits I found noteworthy:

James Tracy:

…books deemed worthy of retention were distributed to respective departments, while those not selected were donated to local nonprofits and public schools.

And yet he also talks about the importance of librarians’ reference services. If I’m trying to help a student direct her research project, how can I do that if the resources at her disposal are, in effect, at ten different libraries with no unified collection database? In other words, I don’t have the foggiest clue what books each department has or where they are, so how can I help a student find them? I’d end up having to say, “Err… go talk to the Social Studies Department head” — thus passing my librarian duties off on a colleague, increasing the student’s running-around time, and undermining the value of my position.

Also, “thanks for the crappy books you didn’t want! We have collection policies too, y’know. Love, local nonprofits and public schools.”

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum:

Books, precisely because of their (literally) bounded limitations, teach us to ask questions that are no less essential for the databases and deep archives of the online world: Who wrote that? Where are the competing voices? How is it organized? By what (and whose) terms is it indexed? Does it have pictures? Can I write in it myself?

I like this. Books have boundaries, and therefore clearer context. I endlessly emphasize the importance of context on the web: Who wrote that? Who published it? Why do we trust them (or not)? Every website is different, but books have a familiar format that makes that information easier to find and more intuitively understood.

Liz Gray:

The digital natives in our schools need to have the experience of getting lost in a physical book, not only for the pure pleasure but also as a way to develop their attention spans, ability to concentrate, and the skill of engaging with a complex issue or idea for an uninterrupted period of time.”

Nicholas Carr says the same, from a research standpoint. And I know this anecdotally: I can read for an hour on the train home without interruption, but just reading this article required clicking over to my work email, my home email, my previous blog post on the subject, yadda.

This also brings up a distinction that people aren’t making enough in this conversation: there’s a huge difference between reading for research and reading for pleasure. Could we get by in my library without research books? If we added some more database and e-book subscriptions, yes, we could. I’m not saying we should, but research sources at the 6th-10th grade level, at least, are quite thorough online. (More in-depth upperclass research projects might be another story.)

But I would not want to work in a library without pleasure-reading books. Real books, on shelves. Several times a week a girl asks me, “What should I read next?” And the best way I have to answer is to look at the shelves with her. What are her favorites? What didn’t she like? What’s new? It jogs both our memories, and the covers and jacket copy pull her in. A Kindle can’t do that.

And finally…

William Powers:

Likewise, the automobile didn’t kill off the passenger train. On this crowded, environmentally troubled planet, it turns out pulling up all those old rail lines was short-sighted and dumb.

The automobile effectively did kill the passenger train, actually, because we started subsidizing highways and stopped subsidizing rail. Turns out that was short-sighted and dumb, and so would be pulping all the books. As I said before, in a post-peak oil world with rolling blackouts and electricity rations, I hope I still have something to read.

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5 Responses to Do libraries need books?

  1. Pingback: More on books in libraries

  2. Sam says:

    And Sachi, I love your sword analogy. I’ll have to think about that more.

  3. Sam says:

    I agree — books aren’t going to be around forever. But they ain’t done yet, and I would argue that’s going to be true for pleasure reading a lot longer than it’s going to be true for looking stuff up.

  4. Sachi says:

    This is a great, great post. :)

    Quite honestly, eventually? Books will probably be something antiquated and treasured by enthusiasts and collectors, like… I don’t know, swords. However, we’re still a ways away from there, and intelligent humans still need to learn both systems academically, and should *enjoy* both systems personally while we still have the chance.

  5. jfpbookworm says:

    I’m a very technical boy, but I still like browsing bookshelves, whether they’re in libraries, bookstores, or people’s private collections (the last being more of a voyeuristic pleasure which I’d admittedly lose if people’s collections were stored digitally). But that’s because that’s what I grew up and am familiar with, and because it’s more convenient for that particular (secondary) purpose, not because there’s something magical about wood pulp over e-ink.

    That said, I don’t think we’re at a point yet where it makes sense to abandon or even reduce print collections in favor of digital ones, except in a few specific cases where the digital version really has made the print equivalent obsolete (e.g., legal cite checking). But I don’t think that it’s impossible to reach a point where we decide the optimum collection is a hybrid that’s much less print-heavy. I don’t think we’ll ever go all the way to digital-only, and might not even get much more digital than we are now unless publishers decide it’s worthwhile for them (or unless authors decide that traditional publishers are no longer necessary).

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