The library lives without any books

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LENOX

Imagine a concert hall with no musicians or instruments, just an iPod playing music to the audience. Imagine a playhouse with no actors, just a stage with a video-game console on which avatars perform the classics. Now imagine a library with no books, just computer screens.

Absurd, right? Ray Bradbury's futuristic novel, "Fahrenheit 451," published in 1953, described a hedonistic, mind-controlling society where firefighters ferret out and incinerate books.

We're not there yet, but books are being burned, figuratively, at the Cushing Academy, a college-prep school in Ashburnham, a town of 5,500 in northern Worcester County.

The boarding school, founded in 1865, had a fine library with more than 20,000 books. Soon the shelves will be bare, with most of the books given away. The library will become a "earning center" costing half a million dollars. Headmaster James Tracy touts the 21st century's all-digital future. And there's no longer any room for books.

Instead, three huge flat-screen TVs (price tag: $42,000) to display the Internet, study cubicles for laptop-equipped students, and 18 electronic readers, such as Amazon's Kindle (as in kindling?)..

"When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books," Tracy told the Boston Globe. "This isn't ‘Fahrenheit 451.' We're not discouraging students from reading. We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology. Instead of a traditional library with 20,000 books, we're building a virtual library where students will have access to millions of books. We see this as a model for the 21st-century school.''

Cushing's library appears to be the first in the nation to betray its reason for existence. But we know that libraries are vulnerable -- witness the ongoing cutbacks at Pittsfield's Berkshire Athenaeum and the Lenox Library's recent brush with insolvency.

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In Hamlet's "Blackberry: Why Paper is Eternal," author William Powers wrote: "There are modes of learning and thinking that at the moment are only available from actual books. There is a kind of deep-dive, meditative reading that's almost impossible to do on a screen. Without books, students are more likely to do the grazing or quick reading that screens enable, rather than be by themselves with the author's ideas."

In a bookless library, students enraptured by their high-tech laptops and their iPhones will lose focus and concentration, given the lure of instant messages, Tweets, Facebook posts, a plethora of entertaining Web sites and e-mail.

Cushing's history department chairman, Alexander Coyle, uses Kindle but hails libraries as "secular cathedrals," adding: "I wouldn't want to ever get rid of any of my books at home. I like the feel of them too much. A lot us are wondering how this changes the dignity of the library, and why we can't move to increase digital resources while keeping the books.''

There's no neo-Luddite, anti-technology agenda here. Town and campus libraries should be information centers equipped with computers and wi-fi Internet access for research (up to one-third of Berkshire residents either lack home computers or high-speed Internet access), as well as music CDs, audio books and videos.

But books in print remain the priority. As Keith Fiels, head of the American Library Association, put it somewhat facetiously: "Books are not a waste of space, and they won't be until a digital book can tolerate as much sand, survive a coffee spill, and have unlimited power. When that happens, there will be next to no difference between that and a book.''

Cushing Academy appears to be an unlikely book-free campus. The school's mission statement reads: "We are dedicated to educating the mind, shaping the character, and nurturing the creativity of young men and women."

Don't expect the headmaster to reverse his mindless decision to, in effect, burn the books. "It was a pleasure to burn," Bradbury wrote of chief fireman Guy Montag in the memorable opening line of "Fahrenheit 451." Eventually, Montag has an epiphany. The author stated that he intended to depict how television destroys interest in reading literature, which leads to a perception of knowledge as factoids.

If anything, his book is even more relevant now. Flames aren't needed to destroy books -- not when we have an educator willing to overthrow them by declaring, "This is the future." Let's go out on a limb with a firm belief that wiser heads will prevail.

Clarence Fanto is the former managing editor of The Eagle.


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