A matter of books

A couple of people have asked for my opinion of today’s Boston.com article about Cushing Academy (a small prep school in western Massachusetts) getting rid the books in their library. (other news stories about this likely to show up here…)

I do, of course, have thoughts. But I’ve also got some “What are you *thinking*?!” thoughts that go beyond the books.

Quick background:
I work at an independent day school serving grades 9-12. We have around 520 students this year (compared to Cushing Academy’s 445 or so, based on some quick searches of boarding school information sites.)

Our library has:

– 15,000 items
– 11,000 books or so (the rest are videos, DVDs, posters, art prints, or technology.)
– about 1,500 of those books are fiction. The rest are non-fiction selected to support classwork and research, as well as reading for personal interest.
– we make about 150-300 interlibrary loan requests each year for deep research projects that go beyond our resources – serious academic texts, mostly. The batch I did today were for books on fractal geometry and its impact on cancer cell growth, for example. Not topics in your typical school library.)

(Incidentally, the size of our library is generally considered very solid for a school of our size: stats of this kind are usually measured in books per student. Our ratio comes out to about 22 books per student, which is quite respectable, though I’d like to get it a bit higher in the next couple of years. 20,000 books in a school of Cushing’s size is therefore also quite respectable. No, it’s not university library material. But it’s also not a university, nor does it have that kind of population density . )

We live in a metropolitan area with some great libraries. The Hennepin and Minneapolis systems are on the tail end of a merger: most of our students live in the now combined library system, which has, as their website says, “Forty-one libraries. More than 5 million books, CDs and DVDs in 40 world languages”

In other words, our students are not short on other options for print materials. And yet, we still maintain that these books are critical resources.

1) The problem of books

I read, on average, a book a day. (Some weeks, less. Some weeks, more). That doesn’t include my online reading, which can be substantial. Obviously, there’s almost no way my budget – or my home bookshelves – are going to keep up with that. A Kindle or other electronic reader (and I’m thinking an iPod touch is in my future sometime this year) helps with the shelf space, but not the pretty substantial cost of new books, even electronically.

I read a bunch of my workplace’s collection. But I also do a thriving trade at my local library: I’m in there at least once a week, and never walk out with less than 5 books. (I sometimes don’t get to all of them before they’re due back, but I do read most of them.) I find all sorts of cool things by random browsing, along with the specific books I request.

I want to create that same experience – albeit in minature – for the students I work with. The chance “Hey, this looks cool” moment as you’re looking for something else. Or walk by a display. Or the chance “Oh, you’re interested in Y? Stop by, we’ve got something on that…” conversations over lunch

2) 18 Kindles? In a school of 440-odd students?

What, you want only some of them to read? Don’t get me wrong, I love my laptop (my ‘yay, stable job’ present last spring) And I read a lot on it. But it is not the most convenient thing to read before I fall asleep. I can’t prop it up while stirring soup on the stove. (Well, not safely.) And I’m really not reading it in the bathtub.

A Kindle (or a Sony Reader, or an iPod Touch, or whatever other reader of choice) helps some of that. But not quite all of it, even so. And it *really* doesn’t help if you’ve got only one per every 24 or 25 students.Yes, some students would maybe buy their own – but then we’re back to expenses to pay for new books, at least on the current ebook models. (for current materials, as opposed to classics and other freely distributed ones.)

3) And what’s this about taking out the reference desk?

People who know my workplace will now be amused, because one of the things I did this summer was take out the huge standing height L shaped reference desk (12 feet of counter space, at least.)

But it got replaced with a regular desk-height desk, with chairs and a computer and various other useful tools (pens, pencils, scissors, etc.) so that students can stop by and chat. I’m not actually seeing a huge number of changes in how many conversations I’m having from last year (when I was much more often in the office) based on this week’s stats. But I am enjoying having the very quick interactions as people wander by.

And I am really loving the casual conversations – we’ve had several times faculty have pulled up a chair, or co-workers in the media center will pull up what they’re working on, and I learn things in the process. Never a bad thing, that serendipitous learning.

4) The question of circulation:

I’m also really curious about the circulation stats quoted in the article, because it’s unclearly written. (I’m sure they don’t mean 48 books that day, which would be really good circulation in a school that size.) That month, no. That semester, no. That year, really no.

When they say ‘children’s books’, do they mean young adult novels? (A great choice, and especially in a school that prides itself on a high international student percentage, which means that English is probably a second (or third, or fourth) language). Good YA books are particularly great breaks in the middle of a lot of academic reading, in my experience. Or do they mean books aimed at younger children (we have a few – mostly Dr. Seuss books and a few fairy tales and fables that we also have in Spanish or French.)

But I can tell you that – even in this first week of school – I’ve checked out at least 14 books to students for pleasure reading. That’s a bit high for us (the numbers will come down once homework is in full swing), but I’m quite pleased.

How do we do it? Some of it’s having devoted readers: they come in, beeline for the stuff they’re interested in, and grab a few other things that look interesting. I do my best to buy stuff that will intrigue them, and talk about what they’re looking for, and all that.

But some of it is buying interesting things, and putting them out on display so that people will poke at them. Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, or the Shadow Divers book (finding a WWII German submarine: it’s a fascinating book that combines history, extremely deep technical diving), or Stiff: The Secret Life of Human Cadavers, or graphic novels, or all sorts of other things that have intriguing titles, covers, or topics.

There are ways to encourage reading (and reading for pleasure) in all formats. But it’s also important to remember what the stats tell us. Lack of stats doesn’t always mean people aren’t using the books. (Depends on which stats you keep.) Often, books may be used in the library. Often, they’ll get pulled off the shelf, looked at briefly for a specific issue, and put back. Sometimes someone won’t want the distraction of checking it out – but will read it, in pieces, every time they’re in the library for study hall. And sometimes, things just don’t get checked out, for whatever reason.  Again, without more details than this article gives, it’s hard to tell what happened here.

I suspect it’s more complicated than “none of the books were getting used.”  And that means the answers should – in any setting that values reason, research, and good information practice – mean going deeper.

Other links and discussions that might be of interest:

– Discussion from Jessamyn West (librarian and deeply interested in integrating technology into libraries.)

– Thread discussing the article on Metafilter

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