The Format Wars : Notes from the Trenches … or… Cushing Revisited

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.

14 thoughts on “The Format Wars : Notes from the Trenches … or… Cushing Revisited

  1. Great post, Shannon! I’ve had similar experiences as to what you describe in your last paragraph — when we have the same nonfiction or reference book available for a student’s research in both print and ebook formats, most of our students prefer the print version. They may like to do casual fiction reading on their kindle/ipad/etc., but when it comes to digesting more complex nonfiction, they still want the paper copy in their hands. Administrators forget that nonfiction reading is a SKILL that young students have not yet mastered, and the distractions inherent in reading on a clickable device can interfere with their developing comprehension.

    • You’re right, Susan. It’s interesting to think of ‘reading’ as a skill that needs to be learned and practiced, as of course it is. Our students live in such a distracting world that any help we can give them in the arena of focus and attention is well worth it.

  2. Shannon, thank you for this beautifully written, important post. I agree with you that we MUST train our students to use information in all its forms if we are college-preparatory schools. The fact is, from Princeton to the wonderful community colleges we have, information comes in long and short form, print and electronic. It’s a mistake to push today’s reality out of the way to make room for the future, today. Kind of like ripping the petals off an orange blossom, demanding that the fruit appear. We’re just not there yet.
    So important to this conversation, as well, is the now well-documented fact that reading the print page and the electronic page are very different cognitive and visual experiences. We process the information differently. The reading skills we develop with one medium are not sufficient to cover the other’s demands.
    Thanks again for a great post.

    • The differences in reading experiences, print page and electronic page, are important to note. Thanks for adding that piece into the mix.

  3. Shannon – great to hear your voice, and to share your insights on this interesting and important matter. We have known about the reality of varied learning styles and preferences for a long time – no reason to believe that e-reading/learning is going to work better for all just because it’s now an option! Thanks so much for your intelligent, articulate, passionate post!

    • Thanks for bringing differences in learning styles into the conversation, Donna. We talk about a student’s ‘preference’ for print or digital resources, but the word ‘preference’ is really too casual for this topic. If students learn more effectively from one format or another, that goes beyond a mere ‘preference’ into the range of ‘necessity’. This is a really important piece of the puzzle, and it’s amazing how often it gets left out.

      • Yes Shannon, thanks so much for this relevant article. I recently read a study, “Online Reading and Executive Function”, by Michelle Shira Hagerman. In the abstract she states that, “emerging evidence suggests that reading to learn on the internet is cognitively more demanding than reading to learn from print on paper.” Initially, she focuses on laptops, but later in her study she uses the term digital reading, which seems to encompass ebooks and other e-resources that are read on e-readers. She draws the same conclusion from these that digital reading is is more demanding.

  4. Shannon, Thank you so much for this excellent article. We spent the better part of the last school year defending our blended collection against the hype surrounding the Cushing Model. We persevered and our blended collection is serving our students and faculty extremely well. It was a major endeavor, but the battle had to be fought!
    Judy James, Friends Academy

  5. As the newly-hired (as of September) Digital Literacy Librarian at the Fisher-Watkins Library at Cushing Academy, I can’t resist responding. This is a subject I live and breathe every day, and while I don’t claim to have any final answers, I can share an alternate perspective.

    On a practical level, our book collection increased roughly tenfold as a result of shifting to an all-digital model, not counting Kindle e-book availability or any public domain works. The change also gave us the ability to adjust and adapt our collection to student and faculty needs much more quickly and easily than before. And e-books offer us tools that are of particular use to our students with learning differences, and those who are still gaining fluency in English, which print books simply can’t provide. Although naturally we still face challenges here that every school library faces, e-books have been a valuable resource, and a good match for our school.

    But I would argue that the e-books are not really the point. The teaching is the bigger mission, and an all-digital collection is a commitment that this school made in order to support that mission. I love print books, our students and faculty love print books, and where it makes sense, we still have print books. But chief among my jobs here at the Fisher-Watkins Library is to teach information literacy skills, and one of the ways I do that is by creating opportunities for students to practice those skills at every turn. Certainly it’s still an evolving thing, much as digital information itself is still evolving. But my primary role is instructional, and our collection is here to promote a skill set that is rooted in the digital environment, as part of the larger school curriculum.

    And it’s true, sometimes the transition to an electronic interface for reading and researching is less comfortable for students (and for faculty, and even for me now and again.) But sometimes learning happens best when we leave comfort behind. In my opinion these skills are absolutely crucial now, and will be imperative to my students’ success both at the university level and over the course of their lives. I will not wait for them to develop incidentally or on their own. This is a pro-active effort to create a situation in which this learning must occur. I spend my working days helping and encouraging my students along this road, walking it alongside them, sometimes stopping with them to catch our metaphorical breath when needed. But if sometimes that means pushing a student forward, then I’m happy to be the one providing the push.

    All that said, the needs of my community will be different from those of another community, and where students are best served with print collections, I would champion the librarian who argues for print. I hope the day comes soon when we librarians no longer have to spend our collective energy debating print books vs. e-books; I’ve always felt it was a bit of a false dichotomy. But I expect we can agree that our libraries are more than the books they contain, whether print or electronic, and our collections should serve the library rather than define it. There is no “format war” here, only different tools in the toolbox.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Amy, and for additional information to help us better understand the current situation at your library. I too look forward to the day where format becomes unimportant. The critical thing is: what are the best resources for our students? And how can we deliver those resources most effectively? Unfortunately, there are some who would like us to jump into a purely digital world without a solid understanding of what that would mean (see Judy James’ comment below) so it has been important to shed light on all the complex possibilities. I love the idea of different tools in a toolbox– and it’s our jobs as librarians to make sure we have all the tools our students need. Thanks again, Amy!

  6. I want to make it abundantly clear that when I talk about ‘administrators’, I do not include my own administrators at my school. I am blessed with amazing and engaged administrators who understand the nuances of today’s library program. I didn’t mention it before cuz I didn’t want to brag 🙂

  7. I, too, appreciate this post, Shannon. At our school for boys, grades 7-12, we find many who prefer print, but who are learning that an e-book is an excellent choice when all the Rick Riordan print books are checked out and on hold, or when they need a full-text search for a topic. We also have a huge electronic collection that we could not afford to buy or house in print, so we get the best of both options. One thing that keeps occurring to me is that we all get tired of looking at screens. I heard it first from a sister school–the girls don’t want to be limited to screens for their entire lives and some of them had begun to actively resist them. The natural world is still out there, and we don’t want to forget it. Print books feel more like the natural world.

  8. Shannon, thank you for initiating this conversation. I found Amy’s response to be fascinating as well. I’ve been curious to hear what’s been going on at Cushing since the media hoopla died down. I think that there are several touchy pieces in this situation: if/when Administrators (or any non-library folks really) make decisions without our input, it undermines our training and expertise. How many library remodels have occurred with little to no input from those who will manage the space? Beautiful design, poor function, we’ve all heard the stories . Trusting the librarian to know his/her community, understanding curriculum, and being well versed in collection development, it’s so important.
    When it comes to print vs. digital, I’m a both/and person, not an either/or. Like you all said so much more eloquently, it depends on the information need and it depends on the patron. I would love to hear more about your digital literacy position, Amy, and to hear in a few years if your commitment to the mostly digital path does pay off in your student’s college preparedness. Are you finding that faculty are willing to work with you to collaborate on research projects? Is there a mandatory information literacy course that you are offering?
    We do all serve very different communities and are working with different spaces and budgets. One of the things I love most about librarianship is our collective support for one another, regardless of our differences. We’re all in it together and if we can learn from each others’ successes and challenges, we will all be better for it.

  9. Yes, I think the question of space and resource allocation is intrinsically mixed up with the question of ‘going digital’, and librarians need to be closely involved in these decisions to make sure the library program is not adversely affected.
    Thanks for a thoughtful comment, Katie!

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