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September 4, 2009

<< Anna Politkovskaya | Context-Aware Electronics >>

Institutions Of Reading

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’s administrators have decided to discard all their books and have given away half of what stocked their sprawling stacks - the classics, novels, poetry, biographies, tomes on every subject from the humanities to the sciences. The future, they believe, is digital.

“When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,’’ said James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing and chief promoter of the bookless campus. “This isn’t ‘Fahrenheit 451’ [the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel in which books are banned]. We’re not discouraging students from reading. We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology.’’

Instead of a library, the academy is spending nearly $500,000 to create a “learning center,’’ though that is only one of the names in contention for the new space. In place of the stacks, they are spending $42,000 on three large flat-screen TVs that will project data from the Internet and $20,000 on special laptop-friendly study carrels. Where the reference desk was, they are building a $50,000 coffee shop that will include a $12,000 cappuccino machine.

And to replace those old pulpy devices that have transmitted information since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1400s, they have spent $10,000 to buy 18 electronic readers made by and Sony. Administrators plan to distribute the readers, which they’re stocking with digital material, to students looking to spend more time with literature.

Earlier today I wrote: “This… is not about technology or pedagogy, but remodeling - and only accidentally the other things.”

I should note that I mean exactly the opposite of “this is no big deal.” To clarify - eliminating the stacks in favor of a) a coffee shop and b) spaces for laptops and digital readers is a reorganization of space and expenditure of money, for which the technological and pedagogical commitments and consequences, while absolutely real, have not been fully thought through.

Let’s consider some of them. Well, let’s start with just one.

At present, the Kindle, like all other electronic readers, is conceived, designed, and marketed as a consumer object. It is designed for individual readers to purchase individual libraries of digital books, which they can then carry with them anywhere. Its closest analogue in the technological world is probably the digital music and media player. Its closest analogue in the history of reading is the consumer-owned paperback book.

For the most part, we’ve internalized and naturalized this mode of reading and all of its rituals. Readers are people who own books. But those aren’t the only kind of readers, and (maybe more importantly) that’s not the only kind of reading.

We read books that aren’t ours. We read stray pieces of paper that are shoved in front of our face and then thrown or tucked away. We read maps and charts posted on walls, newspapers left on chairs, business cards handled and filed, forms that we fill out and return, post-it notes that we wrote as reminders to ourselves weeks and months ago. And a hundred and one other things in a thousand and one different ways.

The Kindle models the reading behavior and rituals of the mainstream owner of books, who is also not accidentally, the mainstream customer of While there is considerable demographic and behavioral overlap between this person and the library patron, the rituals of use are actually quite different. Here are a few things to look at:

  1. Most books (and nonbooks) in libraries are intended and frequently designed to be read by many different people over a long range of time. To use the language of kitchen-appliances, it’s a commercial-grade item. To use the language of IT, books in libraries are terminals or workstations, not PCs. But there’s no such thing (yet) as a multi-user, workstation Kindle.
  2. We usually privilege the big library ritual of picking out a book, checking it out, and taking it home, but most library materials are designed to be read in-place. Rare materials, noncirculating reference, the old card catalog, and of course, books you look up and thumb through, maybe even make some notes or photocopy a few pages from, and return to be shelved. Some of this reading, e.g., searching a library’s entire catalog, a computer terminal performs admirably. But a Kindle doesn’t actually do this very well. Its chief asset, portability, actually works against it; and when you tether a Kindle to a particular building, you’ve eliminated much of its function altogether.
  3. Libraries are collections, typically quite specialized ones, optimized in terms of audience (public, research, youth) if nothing else. And then there are collections within collections - subject wings and reading rooms. Kindles are omnibus devices, offering no particular specializations. In fact, you CAN’T make the Kindle a specialized device, either in its hardware or its software, because no particular reading specialization has a dominant foothold. (This is my impression, anyways; I’d love to hear otherwise).

In short, when it comes to electronic reading machines, there is no equivalent to the library stacks or the computer workstation. There is also no real equivalent to the newsstand or bulletin board, the teacher’s chalkboard, or the family message board. Everything is geared towards the individual reader-owner.

One of my favorite talks, that I return to again and again whenever I’m trying to figure out consumer electronic media, is the joint interview Bill Gates and Steve Jobs gave with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher a few years ago. I’m paraphrasing, but one of the things Gates talks about are the different spaces of experiencing digital technology. The “four-foot experience” - whether you’re watching TV or gaming or watching a movie - is fundamentally different from that of the office PC or the laptop or the handheld. They’re reciprocally different. They require different technologies, different interfaces, to match their different possibilities and inherited rituals.

We haven’t figured this out for digital readers yet - how to vary the hardware and software to match the different possibilities and rituals of reading in different contexts. We don’t have the ordinary library experience, or classroom experience, let alone the Library of Congress experience. In that vacuum, the only thing you can recreate when you pull out the stacks is a coffeeshop or cybercafe. There is nothing else to offer.

By the way, please vote - today! - for our SxSW panel on Kindle 2020. This is one of the things we’ll be talking about.

(Below the fold is the point in the thread where I can become a prematurely old man.)

Bookstores and college libraries are one thing. But why does a high school - a high school! - need a coffee shop? Do they get free coffee? If not, how much do they charge? Do I have to give my kid three dollars so he can buy a cappuccino at school now? Are they drinking coffee during school? After school? Are there places to sit with coffee that are separate from the places to sit and read? Can’t we stop peddling coffee to kids already? Yeesh.

Posted September 4, 2009 at 12:21 | Comments (4) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Technosnark


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.

Posted by: Joanna on September 5, 2009 at 06:38 AM

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.

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.

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

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