I was talking with a colleague recently and the conversation shifted over to Things Administrators Think They Know. One of those things they think they know is that ‘Everything is available online’ (see my blog post from November 2013), and its corollary: ‘Libraries need only a fraction of the space they currently take up’. Administrators love this last one, as it allows the full scale renovation of the library into a small space with some computers right next to the spacious new Faculty Room/Espresso Bar. My colleague was asking for tips on what to say to her administrator the next time he started praising the Cushing Model as a template for the future of their library.
This prompted me to take a look into the state of affairs at the Cushing Academy (Ashburnham, MA) now that the dust has settled. As some of you will remember, in 2009 the Cushing Academy took the bold step of transforming their collection from primarily print to almost entirely digital resources. Some items were retained in print format, including a small collection of children’s books, many of the art books, and a limited collection of popular fiction. In an open letter responding to other librarians’ concerns, Cushing librarian Thomas Corbett explained that the goal was to “focus our efforts and limited resources on meeting the student in their digital space with new tools, techniques and encouragement that promotes reading and improves learning”, and that “this will require libraries fully committed to making sure reading thrives in a digital environment”. That might work if your students live solely in a “digital space”, but students at my school live in a heterogeneous world, with preferences for both digital and analog tools, depending on the need.
When the “The Cushing Model” was introduced to the world in 2009 it was with the fanfare of a major motion picture premiere, but there hasn’t been much about it in the news lately. While attending Liz Gray’s seminar on collection development at the Taft Summer Institute in July of 2012, our group was able to tour the library at Cushing and talk with Corbett about the transformation and maintenance of the collection. My observations at the time included the following:
- At that time there were no mandated information literacy sessions, and not much research being done. A new committee had just been created to look into improving this.
- Corbett did not think Collection Development was important. Some resources were received in cooperation with the state, with gaps filled in by database subscriptions.
- Cushing’s expenses for recreational reading after the transition to digital exceeded that for print purchases before. Titles were purchased and downloaded onto devices as students requested, with no coordination between devices.
In 2012 came the publication of Building and Managing E-Book Collections, edited by Richard Kaplan and published by Neal-Shuman. Part III of this book is devoted to “E-Books in Practice”. Among the six academic and public libraries included in this section is the one at the Cushing Academy. Tom Corbett’s evaluation of their library program is illuminating. The first mention of a benefit from a primarily bookless library is that it “freed up significant floor space to be used for other library and institutional purposes”. This is the part that administrators love. At Cushing it included the espresso bar and 2 new classrooms that were not used for library purposes. Corbett notes that student use of e-books for research has “not fully lived up to expectations…perhaps our selection of e-book titles, as large as it is, is still too highly academic for secondary school students”. Another thought is that this is where careful Collection Development becomes a vital professional service. A knowledgeable librarian can customize the collection to match classroom assignments, but this sort of close match is generally not a function of ‘purchase by package.’ I also noted that out of six ‘Actions to Improve Library Services by Prioritizing Digital Content’ presented in a sidebar, four are services that would benefit a collection including print as well as digital resources, such as “Work with faculty to raise citation standards and promote ethical research”.
I found myself wondering. Corbett said “While p-books still provide a few unique advantages, it is debatable whether these advantages warrant the resources needed to adequately provide for them in a secondary school environment. In our view, they do not; the opportunity costs are simply too high.” Corbett is saying that print books are uniquely useful, but cost too much to provide. In this specific example, it is a financial decision rather than a curricular or programmatic one. Later, he says that “the value of electronic text, especially for extended reading, is directly correlated with the quality of the device it is displayed on. In this regard, paper sets a very high standard” (emphasis mine)—and then goes on to say that “This is why we primarily deliver our reading service through nearly 100 e-ink-based Kindles”. To my mind, if ‘paper sets a very high standard’, then why not offer paper as one alternative?
One highlight of the digital transformation at Cushing is an increase in ‘long-form popular reading’, which continues to grow after the introduction of the digital collection. This is balanced by the lack of such an increase in the use of ebooks for research. Corbett notes that “the use of subscription content of all types has remained mostly stagnant.” This seems to average out to a C grade on the Cushing Model. If Cushing did not have the ideological impetus of becoming a primarily digital collection, they might have gone with the blended collections approach, allowing more flexibility to reach for the right tool for the right job, be it print or digital. Our students exhibit a range of preferences here at Harvard-Westlake Upper School, with some preferring print for recreational reading but digital for research, and others leaning in one direction or other along the print/digital spectrum.
In his article in Building and Managing E-Book Collections, Tom Corbett says the Secondary School Library’s two main roles are to support research and to support reading. He mentions teaching in an aside as he doesn’t consider it as directly related to the use of e-books. I think there is a direct relationship: our students need to be taught how to use the resources they will find at their college libraries. The vast majority of college libraries contain a combination of print and digital resources. Students need to feel confident to approach their research from anywhere along the digital/print spectrum with the primary focus resting on the quality of the resource. I think this can only be accomplished in a library that is a collection of the best resources, carefully selected — regardless of format– to meet the specific needs of a school’s curriculum, students and faculty.
School libraries are important to our students in three major ways:
- Materials are carefully selected and made available to students in support of the school’s curriculum and to promote development of a life-long love of reading
- Librarians provide instruction on how to locate, evaluate and use resources both on site and off, and how to become responsible digital citizens
- Libraries provide a welcoming space for students to work alone and in groups, with useful resources and a librarian’s assistance close at hand.
If resources are tight and space and funding is an issue, then schools do need to evaluate their programs to find the best options for their school. In this case, then the discussion is one of determining the best use of school resources, with possible limitations of services as a necessity. To couch this discussion in terms of one format’s precedence over another, however, is not really applicable.
One recent interaction underscored the importance of providing a variety of formats. A student was looking for a title in the Social Issues Primary Sources collection from Gale, Human and Civil Rights, which we have both in print and as part of our Gale Virtual Reference Collection. As I helped her find the print volume on the shelf I reminded her that we also had access to the ebook online. She told me she liked working with the print version better, and that it was “just easier to use.” As a current junior, this was certainly a card-carrying member of the Digital Generation, but in this instance she preferred the print edition with its easy access and handy layout. Another time she might prefer the digital version for any number of reasons. It is important that our students are given the tools they need – and taught to use these tools– to prepare for their futures, without limiting these tools due to an artificial fixation on format.
Corbett, Thomas. “E-Books in a High School Library.” Building and Managing E-Book Collections. Ed. by Richard Kaplan. Chicago : Neal-Schuman, 2012.
Corbett, Thomas. Open Letter.
Gray, Liz, Cheryl Steele and Cassandra Barnett. “Bring Back the Books” . “Letters.” School Library Journal 55.11 (2009): 10. ProQuest. Web. 31 Jan. 2014.