Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Library for the Jetsons

We all remember the Jetsons, right? A cheesy cartoon about a stereotypical '60s family set in the future? The Jetsons travel everywhere by either rocket or helicopter and talk on videophones all the time.

I was reminded of the Jetsons when I read this story in the Boston Globe: the headmaster at Cushing Academy is all fired up about how the library there is going to shed all of its books. “When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,’’ is what the headmaster told the paper. The plan is to create "A Learning Center" (a hilarious name, I think, because if the library is now the center of learning on campus, what are we supposed to think about the rest of the school?). This includes the replacement of 20,000 volumes with a set of 18 Amazon Kindles. Maybe this figure is based on the library's circulation data from recent years, but it seems a little low for a school of 450 students. I will admit that the cappucino bar sounds appealing, but the whole project starts to sound to me more like a Café with good wifi than a "Learning Center."

So is this the wave of the future? Is the bound book (and printed media generally) headed to the fate of the scroll? I don't think so; and this is where the Jetsons come into it. Fifty years ago, many people made assumptions about the future based on the new technologies of the present. Videophones would become normative; everything would be atomic powered and automated; communications would be constant (well, they got that right), all buildings would be high-rise; and the wheel would be as obsolete as , well, the scroll.

Fifty years later, the Jetsons were obviously wrong, even though the technology was (in many ways) right. We could all live in high-rises, but we don't. Video-chatting is easy and cheap, but far from normative. And we still travel on wheels, every day. The reason for this is technological progress is not a zero sum game. New technology only rarely supplants old tech; it supplements it. Often it comes to dominate the old tech, but the old tech remains (an example: the printed book superceded the handwritten book, but did not supercede handwriting). We still have a land line in our house, ands we still have one phone where the receiver is attached to it by wires. The cordless and mobile phones are fine, except when they aren't (their charge runs down, or they get lost), and then it is a good thing to have a hard line.

Bound books are the like the wheel: a simple and elegant technology that requires nothing more than itself. Once made they can be read through any kind of conditions with minimal care, and no external technology to support their use. They require no batteries, no electricity, no signal, no annual subscription fee, no changes in licensing agreement. Are they sometimes heavy? Sure. But for all that, they are incredibly liberating in a way that a kindle, for all its stunning capabilities, just isn't.

As for Cushing, I think this is not much more than a recruiting/publicity stunt. I know that sounds cynical, but times are hard for boarding schools, and Cushing is venerable without being particularly notable. No one will care if they end up keeping some of their books, but by announcing their radical plan they did manage to get themselves on the front page of a major (albeit struggling) newspaper, and tout their new Wifi Café. On the other hand, the whole thing could be totally sincere: I see that the Cushing head likes to be addressed as "Dr. James Tracy," a vanity that the Globe (bless them) declined to indulge. There is no surer sign of an educational windbag than wanting to be called "doctor" based on an Ed. degree.

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