Monday, February 15, 2010

You Go To the Library to Read

Some might argue that this simple statement regarding libraries is all that needs to define them. They need to be places to read, regardless of what you're reading and how you're reading it. The NY Times recently posted students' comments about the debate going on in the library world about how to handle the cost of storing printed books and the need to keep up with the world of electronic books. I found the student comments, truth be told, only mildly interesting, but the article that prompted this forum had more more to offer me and perhaps the readers of this blog.

The Editors at the Times brought the following folks together in a forum, with each contributing their thoughts regarding Cushing Academy's decision to move books out of their library, focusing the space instead on meetings and more things digital. Here are the participants:

Each participant wrote a short piece about the need to move libraries toward a more digital future or concerns about how this kind of "progress" is happening. It's worth noting Tracy's point, that printed books were not just thrown out, but instead,
We, therefore, invited the chairmen of our academic departments to comb the stacks; books deemed worthy of retention were distributed to respective departments, while those not selected were donated to local nonprofits and public schools.
This is a fair distinction, but the red flags do not disappear with such an explanation. What of cross-pollination, when a student researching the Civil Rights era for a history class comes across a novelization of a rally in the library, as part of a display created by a librarian? That option is gone if the history books are with the history department and the novels are all with the English department.

Tracy says that the library space, freed of all those dusty ol' tomes, "has become a hub where students and faculty gather, learn and explore together." I'm all for coming together and all that jazz, but I'm also for having authoritative texts available. Look, I have no doubt that the Cushing faculty are smart folks, but they don't know everything. Students - just like the rest of us - need quiet space to explore, without heavy-handed direction, without strict boundaries, without endless chatter - either in person, on their phone, on the corner of their screen as someone tries to IM them. They don't necessarily need more time with teacher; they may need more time alone.

Some other responders in this list really make fine arguments in support of printed books, without demonizing e-readers or e-books. For example, librarian Gray makes a simple point that immediately calls to mind why I've always loved reading:

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.

I know, predictable, but I still believe she's right. I won't claim to be objective. Gray also mentions her skills as a librarian, which are too often overlooked or forced in a less valuable direction by those racing toward the supposed all-digital future.

Nicholas Carr won me over early, by stating provocatively that, "if we care about the depth of our intellectual and cultural lives, we’ll see that emptying our libraries of books is not an example of progress. It’s an example of regress." Of course, he's right, and he makes a pretty airtight argument.

When we read from the screen of a multifunctional computing device, whether it’s a PC, a Smartphone, a Kindle, or an iPad, we sacrifice that singlemindedness. Our attention is scattered by all the distractions and interruptions that pour through our computers and digital networks. The result, a raft of psychological and neurological studies show, is cursory reading, weak comprehension and shallow learning.

If you made it through that paragraph without skimming, jumping to another page, reading an email or IM, or answering a text or call, then you probably get his point.
William Powers offers something a bit more nuanced, an argument I try to get behind at moments when I want to be part of what will work, rather than go against the inevitable. (But I fear I'm being weak in those moments, truth be told.) He finds a middle ground in which we do great damage by throwing out books in our rush to go digital, making the analogy to cars and rail. Cars didn't kill the railroad, and in fact, we are kicking ourselves for the damage it did do, when cars were given so much consideration that, in places, we tore up railway lines.

But I don't think I'm being weak in agreeing with Powers here. I'll quote him at length, as I think he makes a point about books needing to survive even as we seek out new frontiers with reading and writing:


What are often considered the weaknesses of the old-fashioned book are in some ways its strengths. For instance, a physical book works with the body and mind in ways that more readily produce the deep-dive experience that is reading at its best. When you read on a two-dimensional screen, your mind spends a lot of energy just navigating, keeping track of where you are on the page and in the text. The tangibility of a traditional book allows the hands and fingers to take over much of the navigational burden: you feel where you are, and this frees up the mind to think.

Moreover, I believe that in a hyper-connected age, the fact that books are not connected to the electronic grid is becoming their greatest asset. They’re a space apart, a private place away from the inbox where we can go to quiet our minds and reflect. Isn’t that the state in which the best kind of learning occurs?


This seems reasonable, even if it's not what some of us want to hear. Let the folks desperate to bring 50 "books" with them on a plane get the reading device and upload away and glory in "page" after "page," but don't bother me as a I quietly turn paper page after paper page in the seat next to you.

One thing that I was annoyed not to see in all of these responses is the commercial question of these devices. Kindle is clearly a monopoly, and other readers are claiming to allow for more variations in the kinds of documents one can read. But we're talking about kids in libraries here. Isn't this a bit like selling all soda in the cafeteria, b/c hey, that's what kids want, but maybe making it diet so it's not quite as bad? Or letting kids play videogames in PE because they just don't like balls and fields anymore? On some level, I kind of feel like looking at children and telling them to pipe down - a term my brother used often growing up - and read for more than two seconds. They'll be better for it. They will be develop their own interests and be able to concentrate for more than ten seconds and will value alone time. They'll grumble when told to read a book, and then, at least a few of them, they won't be able to stop.

I'd like to believe that kids, like adults, value time without a buzzing screen. If they have to work so hard to find a physical book while electronic devices are readily available - devices so similar to what is being advertised to them and pushed on them constantly - when will they ever get into books, and what will that mean for books, for thinking, for personalities going forward? What will this mean for, as Carr says, "the depth of our intellectual and cultural lives?"

PS Today's Boston Globe has a short Q&A with Tufts professor Maryanne Wolf, Director of the Tufts University Center for Reading and Language Research, by Karen Weintraub. Wolf mentions some concerns with young people's reading, influenced so heavily by digital media. It's not just their reading, but their brains and their way of relating to books and other media. She offers her own solution to the constant inundation of ads and digital distractions, and it's a charming and very smart concept:

I begin the day and I end the day with an hour that is completely free of anything that is professionally demanding - using e-mail or Internet or anything. I end with literature, books that console and uplift, but require me to slow down. I want to begin my day and end it with a pause button of my own choice.

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