Thursday, September 30, 2010

No more books? -- Sept. 30, 2010 column


My memories of high school do not include textbooks. I remember rambling more than I remember cracking a book.

I wandered into journalism at the school newspaper, met T.S. Eliot in the library and schemed petty rebellion listening to folk music. Fueled by black coffee and Bob Dylan, my friends and I drove aimlessly into adventures that always ended too soon. We had curfews.

Textbooks were remote, boring and infinitely forgettable.

This year, though, students at Clearwater (Fla.) High School, my alma mater, actually may remember their textbooks. For the first time, all of Clearwater High’s 2,100 students received Kindle electronic readers personalized with their individual textbooks. Amazon has said the high school is the country’s first to issue devices to all students.

“I feel like a pioneer walking into a new era,” Clearwater principal Keith Mastorides told the St. Petersburg Times.

The students and faculty in Clearwater are hardly the only pioneers stepping into a new era. Nearly each day brings a milestone in the evolution of how we read.

Today you can read newspapers, books or magazines instantly. Your customized news feed from sources you pick comes directly to you. Still, it’s hard to beat the serendipity of finding articles you didn’t know you wanted to read while turning print pages.

So far, the publishing industry accommodates both the print and the digital enthusiast, but newspapers and magazines are struggling. Some experts predict the demise of the print book in five short years. That sounds extreme, but Amazon reported this summer that for every 100 hardbacks, it sells 143 digital books for Kindles.

Providing electronic readers and digital books is technologically savvy and saves school districts money. But should the school library go the way of bound books?

Cushing Academy, a prep school in Massachusetts, is getting rid of its library books and spending half a million dollars on a replacement for its library. Officials haven’t decided whether to call the new place a “learning center” or something else, the Boston Globe reported.

“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 $40,000 coffee shop that will include a $12,000 cappuccino machine,” David Abel wrote in the Globe.

The University of Texas at San Antonio’s Applied Engineering and Technology Library brags that it’s the first university library to go totally book-free. Other scientific libraries have been moving toward a book-free state, but at the UT-San Antonio library, there’s not one bound volume. All 425,000 books and 18,000 scholarly journal articles are accessible only by computer.

The Web site Inside Higher Ed called the Texas library “a symbol of the inevitability of electronic as the prevailing medium” in academia.

For now, most students can explore library stacks with their shelves of endless possibility.

But change is upon us. The venerable New Yorker, first published in 1925, just launched an iPad version to augment its print and other digital offerings.

In a reassuring note to readers in the Oct. 4 issue, the editors said print remains the magazine’s most popular form “by miles,” and yet they sniped gratuitously at another print tradition: “Unlike a Sunday newspaper, say, the print magazine is still a beautiful, portable, storable, slide-it-into-your-bag-able technology.”

Beauty is in the eye of the holder. Sunday newspapers are big, fat and unwieldy when they have lots of advertising. Ads, as the editors of The New Yorker well know, are a good thing.

The magazine’s editors also wrote: “We’re at once delighted and a little bewildered about this latest digital development and our place in it: delighted because of the quality of what the tablet provides and the speed with which the magazine can be distributed, but bewildered, too, because we’d be liars if we say we knew precisely where the technology will lead.”

Amen. Delighted and bewildered we all are, and none of us knows where the technology will lead.

In Clearwater, a 10th grader told a local TV station it felt like Christmas morning when she got her Kindle. Other students say the devices are a weight off their shoulders. They’re only 8” by 5” and weigh 10 ounces. Students can take notes and look up words in a built-in dictionary. The device has a wireless connection.

“It’s still a book,” said principal Mastorides. “But it’s a book-plus!”

We’ll find out if the students remember just the Kindles or also the subject matter they contain. I, for one, hope the devices also encourage youthful ramblings, real or virtual. Many of high school’s lessons don’t come from books.

The book-plus – or whatever you call the latest technology – offers students of all ages ease and freedom. Happy wandering.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. A very interesting report on Kindles replacing libraries and books in schools. I wonder what happens if the bomb that destroys electronic commications is used? Does that eliminate all knowledge? I hope someone is working on this aspect of applying new technology.

    Ms. Mercer this is a really important and interesting report. Good coverage, first-rate writing, and very timely, indeed. Thank you.