The Great Library Debate Misses the Point

The recent front-page article about Cushing Academy’s library of the future (“Welcome to the library. Say goodbye to the books,” 9/4/09) sparked highly emotional responses among readers (474 comments online, as of today) and drew a sharp editorial retort from the Globe (“Overeager futurism at Cushing,” 9/7/09). The problem is, both Cushing and the Globe are engaged in last century’s debate. As the 2009-10 school year starts, the conversation in libraries should not be computers replacing books, but about how to use the best of emerging technology and applications to support new approaches to learning and teaching.

The newest technologies are collaborative, social networking applications that change the classroom dynamic in powerful ways. One of the world’s foremost educational technology experts, Professor Stephen Heppell, calls Web 2.0 “the death of education and the dawn of learning.” For a more positive, research-based assessment of the impact of technology on education, read the New York Times piece (“At your fingers, an Oxford don,” 9/13/09) in which Beaver parent and Harvard education professor Chris Dede is quoted.

By providing the means for students to collaborate with each other and with their teachers on a more sophisticated level, these emerging technologies, when used well, strengthen the student-teacher relationship and allow students to learn, research, create and collaborate without the boundaries of space and time. And, for the most part, they cost nothing.

Educators should not waste time arguing about whether there should be books in the library; rather, they need to re-conceive how the library’s physical space can also accommodate new ways of learning. Major universities around the country are removing – or storing off-site – hundreds of thousands of volumes, while keeping essential print resources on hand. A well-designed modern library provides space for students to study independently, to collaborate in small groups and to work in larger groups. A 21st century library needs space for students to discuss their work – out loud – freeing librarians from the chore of shushing students.

Will there be books in the library of the future …who knows? Will we only read Hamlet on a Kindle and conduct all research online? Maybe. As for the future of traditional textbooks, that is a different matter. All those weighty and expensive chemistry, history and language textbooks need to be replaced by Web-based resources that are dynamic and interactive. Imagine being able to open your American history “textbook” with your browser and being directed to blogs, podcasts, Atlantic Monthly articles, TED talks etc. that relate to what you are currently studying. Imagine students and teachers creating online resources that allow them to exchange ideas with other students and teachers anywhere in the world, in real time. Inexpensive netbook computers make investing in technology a great value when compared with the cost of maintaining and updating print resources.

In forward-thinking schools teachers and administrators are already having sophisticated conversations about how best to harness Web 2.0’s potential for transforming learning and teaching. This is the most exciting time I have experienced in my 34 years in education. Let’s stop wringing our hands, start asking the big questions and give our students the tools they need to succeed.

One Response to The Great Library Debate Misses the Point

  1. Tracy Simko February 3, 2012 at 10:10 am #

    Feeling fortunate to be in a school that knows where it is (and should be) headed, embraces that, rather than fearing it, and sends a clear message to students that they are the architects of both their small little worlds and, potentially, the mindbogglingly tech-based bigger world. If it’s this exciting for me as a parent, I’m confident my child absorbs that. Bit of a leap of faith that my 6th grader will develop the tools to meaningfully utilize the progressive attitudes (hoping maybe social entrepreneurship along the way?!)….but my money’s on you Beaver!

Leave a Reply