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Institutions Of Reading
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What is happening here?

This year, after having amassed a collection of more than 20,000 books, officials at the pristine campus [of Cushing Academy] about 90 minutes west of Boston have decided the 144-year-old school no longer needs a traditional library. The academy

September 4, 2009 / Uncategorized

4 comments

Joanna says…

I’m all about exploiting new technologies, but I just sent a student to the library so he could look on the shelves to see what was NEXT to the book he found in the online catalogue, pull down a bunch of books, do a quick browse and decide what to take home to read later. You can’t do that digitally–even with a variety of features that allow you to see “what’s on the shelf”. At least for now.

If catalogues had coverflow with lins that led you to scanned books, even then it is hard to do the kind of flip and scan that one does in the stacks.

Yeah, this is arguably a case where digital cataloging has actually let us down a little bit, actually losing value from the logic of the stacks and the card index, and where the retailers have been more innovative than the academics. Coverflow for library catalogues is a great idea. So would a port of something like Amazon’s or Google’s recommendation engine – although obviously, libraries are more cautious about privacy issues than retailers. Ditto a “cited in this book” and “this book cited in” expansive bibliography.

In general, digital library catalogs treat the individual record as an endpoint of search – a database entry – while online retailers have largely treated it as an additional portal – a web page. Retailers take better advantage of the fact that the potentially-infinite duplication of an entry or symbolic links between entries afford you a number of ways to assess context.

On the other hand, maybe this is the point. A library catalog entry might be the endpoint of search for the system, but not the reader. You then seek out the book in the stacks, which is its own kind of portal. Then you see the book in a different kind of context, among hundreds of books on related subjects, which you can pursue as additional resources in their own right or simply as context to the contents of that book – as opposed to the retailer, who wants to sell you another book. You bought this book? Buy this one too.

Dan says…

Tim: I think you’ve hit on an important point here by focusing on the implicit (and narrow) assumptions about reading built into this library re-design. Replacing the stacks with pre-loaded Kindles interprets the library as a site for individual reading and ignores the use of the library as a workshop or collection. Great (and mediocre) research libraries don’t need open stacks, but they do need some stacks. Those stacks act as resources to be explored and mined, as an analogue to the naturalists cabinet of butterflies from around the world or the molecular biologists genetic database. Perhaps Google Books and such services will eventually provide great stacks (and a great research collections) to every digital device, but that is far from guaranteed. In the meantime, even students in high school can benefit from learning to use a library as a specialized space for investigating a wide variety of texts.

Dan says…

Also, in curmudgeonly agreement: pushing coffee on kids (even high class coffee) is distasteful.

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