“Isn't that the library that did away with books?”
The print purge was a traumatic event for Cushing faculty. Many faculty told me that they felt their library had been taken away from them. Restoring their trust and renewing their interest in collaborative instruction and programming was a top priority for me, and one of the most difficult (and most rewarding) parts of the work I did.
On my first morning at Cushing, I met a faculty member who was interested in the work of a popular adventure writer/historian. I mentioned that I had just heard the author speak about a new book of his. The faculty member responded, “I'd love to read that.” To which I responded, “I can get it for you. Do you want it in print or on a Kindle?” At that moment, his shoulders visibly relaxed and he said, “I wasn't even going to ask you for a copy because I knew the answer would be the Kindle --and I hate reading on the Kindle. So, yes, a print copy, please.”
Needless to say, I began purchasing print that very day. And I asked the library staff to offer the option of a printed copy anytime someone requested a title. (In the prior five years, Kindle eReaders had been the only platform for anyone seeking books from the library.) After the first two months of school, we found that eight out of every 10 requests were for materials in printed form. Of course, the corollary is that some readers acclimated well to the Kindle device and preferred it in some instances. The point is, we as librarians work with students and faculty to give them what they want in the format they can use. This basic, long-standing expectation of library services had been overturned in an instant in 2009, and would be slow to restore.
The visuals have changed irrevocably. The library will never go back to looking as it did before the change. Tall, imposing stacks holding some 30,000 volumes will not reappear. A cafe and soft seating have displaced study carrels and ways of studying that preceded the iPhone and laptop. Low shelving units that remained on-site --empty after the change -- have be redeployed as part of the small, leaner print collection. In 2014 when I arrived, the library still held visual and performing arts books, some fiction, and a ragtag collection of donated books. At the end of the 2015-2016 academic year, the collection stood at 4500 or so print volumes.
Purchasing and displaying new materials prominently might seem to be evidence enough of a re-orientation of the library offerings -- but it’s not. Memories persist in spite of contradicting empirical evidence. A full two years after we began the restoration of the print collection, students guiding campus tours would stop in front of a large display filled with new books and describe the library as all-digital, ‘on Kindles.’
Despite the library staff’s best attempts to promote a new and expanding print collection as part of the library offerings-- through coaching tour guides, regular contact with students and faculty at library front desk, and instruction sessions in the library that showcase print and digital materials, the uptake in the community has been gradual. My assumption is that it will take a generation of students (that is, the four year cycle), and ample opportunities to work with students and faculty in the classroom in ways that demonstrate the utility of print alongside digital offerings for the restoration to be complete.
The most important parts of the school library experience are social. In some ways, the all-digital library sealed off many of the shared experiences that we as librarians rely on to encourage reading and the use of the collections. Print books, and the displays and events created for their promotion, gave us a much broader array of possible ways of connecting to students and faculty. The success of almost all our programming -- Banned Book Week, Poetry Nights, Book Club, Blind Date with a Book -- was only possible given the availability of print as a means of distribution and promotion.
Many librarians and IT staff from peer institutions have visited the Cushing library to observe the results of the digital library experiment. Although I believe that print is an important component of an school library’s offerings, I have met many who are pressed for space, and considering a dramatic consolidation of print offerings. Over time, I have developed a short list of considerations that should be addressed in the planning stages of any large-scale curtailment of print.
- The loss of a print collection forces some, if not many, readers into reading formats that they do not enjoy or have difficulty using. Cushing’s academic support program, for instance, found the library’s Kindles helpful for some students; others absolutely needed to read from the print page. Consider the features and limitations of digital devices as well (listening, not reading; note-taking, etc).
- Digital-only collections narrow the range of available content, and force teachers to seek digital alternatives and alter their course preparation and design. In these situations, the library becomes a driver of how instruction happens in an uncomfortable way by forcing workarounds in some cases.
- The promotion of reading, book events and reading clubs -- social elements of the library’s outreach -- are much more difficult without physical books for visual support. Consider Banned Book Week. How do you teach the pernicious effects of banning books when you have removed them from view?
Although the print collection has not yet been fully integrated into the library experience at Cushing, there are glimmers of hope that it will be. The new YA materials, for instance, are well-used and create important connections with readers. Of course, dedicated readers will find their way to the books they seek. It is the non-readers, those who read with difficulty and those who need support and encouragement that have the most to lose when a library undergoes a dramatic shift away from print collections without adequate consideration of the consequences on teaching, learning and the relationships that bind them together. Perhaps it takes a dramatic departure such as the Cushing experiment to learn what’s most important about the school library experience.