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McCallum: Cyber Libraries

05/22/12 5:55PM By Mary McCallum
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(Host) Commentator Mary McCallum is an educator, librarian and freelance writer who recently ran across a news item about the renovation of a Vermont high school library that left her with very mixed emotions.

(McCallum) The story posted on the webpage of a nearby Vermont town caught my attention. The high school library was poised for major renovation. Ah, I mused, a fresh coat of paint and new carpeting perhaps? The planned $100,000.00 facelift did include new furniture, carpeting, paint and even central air conditioning. But that wasn't the half of it.

Five thousand books were being tossed to make way for the transformation of the library into a high-end digital learning center, complete with cyber cafe. The article described how students would "interact, collaborate and problem solve in a learning based environment." But, I thought, isn't that what any library is, by definition, a learning based environment where problem solving is always happening?

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I'm a librarian and lover of books: the kind that have pages in them, the kind that smell like a pleasantly warm attic on a summer day. Still, I accept the digital world as a piece of our evolution that's here to stay. I get it that Nooks and Kindles are a convenient, cost effective and lightweight method for making information resources available at the touch of a screen. They enlarge pesky small fonts and save trees and luggage space.

But I have some real reservations about our love affair with all things digital in the world of education. Sure, today 's students have information at their fingertips, tsunamis of it. Most of them have access to it on home computers and 24/7 on their smartphones and iPads. They chat, Skype and text non-stop - even while walking the dog.

I remember being shocked in 2009 - when the venerable Cushing Academy near Boston got rid of every library book it owned in order to create a digital learning center. The headmaster said, "When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books." His utterance caused a nationwide flap among traditional bibliophiles - like me - who believe that shelves, and the physical books on them, still have a place in libraries.

Bookstores, libraries and the world of publishing have been upended by technology. The death knell of The Book has been sounding for years and is increasing in volume. But not everywhere. Prisons have libraries, and inmates do more than just hide contraband inside them - they sit in cells, books in hand, and actually read them. And my local bookstore just posted a sign out front that advertises "A.R.D.s Available Here," followed by the note, "Antique Reading Devices: Books."

E-books are especially popular for traveling. My neighbor, a lifelong reader, loved her recently acquired Kindle - until a friend loaned her one of those same antique reading devices, complete with cover. She opened it, inhaled the smell of ink, and settled in to the familiar posture of sitting with a book in her hands, breaking the silence with a papery swish at each turn of the page. She hasn't picked up the Kindle since.

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