“Do School Libraries Need Books?” by William Powers (NYT)

2010-06-09T19:31:44+00:00 June 9th, 2010|

“Do School Libraries Need Books?”
The New York Times, Room for Debate page, February 10, 2010
Click here for the entire article. Read William’s segment below.

A Place to Learn

“Books offer a place away from the inbox, where we can go to quiet our minds and reflect.”

In times of rapid technological change, there’s a natural tendency to get caught up in the moment and believe the past is being completely swept away, along with all the technologies it produced. As one of the teachers at Cushing Academy put it, “This is the start of a new era.”

This is indeed the start of a new era. Digital devices are transforming how we live in all kinds of thrilling ways, and we’ve only begun to explore their potential. But embracing these new tools doesn’t require us to simultaneously throw out all the old ones, particularly those that continue to serve useful purposes. Who says it has to be an either-or decision?

The idea that books are outdated is based on a common misconception: the belief that new technologies automatically render existing ones obsolete, as the automobile did with the buggy whip. However, this isn’t always the case. Old technologies often handily survive the introduction of new ones, and sometimes become useful in entirely new ways.

Seventy years ago, many believed the advent of television spelled the end of radio. Wrong. Likewise, the automobile didn’t kill off the passenger train. On this crowded, environmentally troubled planet, it turns out pulling up all those old rail lines was short-sighted and dumb.

So it goes with books. What are often considered the weaknesses of the old-fashioned book are in some ways its strengths. For instance, a physical book works with the body and mind in ways that more readily produce the deep-dive experience that is reading at its best. When you read on a two-dimensional screen, your mind spends a lot of energy just navigating, keeping track of where you are on the page and in the text. The tangibility of a traditional book allows the hands and fingers to take over much of the navigational burden: you feel where you are, and this frees up the mind to think.

Moreover, I believe that in a hyper-connected age, the fact that books are not connected to the electronic grid is becoming their greatest asset. They’re a space apart, a private place away from the inbox where we can go to quiet our minds and reflect. Isn’t that the state in which the best kind of learning occurs?