The story screamed at me from the front page of the Boston Globe on September 4 (yes, I was actually reading a newspaper in the morning.) Here was an extreme vision of what seems to be happening all over: James Tracy, the triumphant headmaster of Cushing Academy outside of Boston, was glorying in his reborn $500,000 “learning center”—which included advanced computers and plasma TVs, the latest in technology, and—by the way—the gave away all those old books. “When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,” he said.
I work as an administrator in a well-known university and while the magnificent library with its millions of books hasn’t crumbled and the students this fall continue to value its priceless treasures and still actually read and use books, the laptop, not the printed text, is their constant companion, cell phones are becoming quaint reminders of outdated science, and venerable publications are disappearing to save money and promote “green” values—the course catalogue, handbooks, and other publications are now available only on line.
The trend towards a paperless universe is touted as an inevitability—to quote an 18 year old senior responding to the prospect of a school without books, “It’s a little strange, but this is the future.” Resisting the March of Progress marks you as a contemporary dinosaur who needs to constantly embrace the new or risk becoming extinct. Goodness knows I spend much of my working life at the computer, a vast improvement over the electric typewriter. I no longer smear my fingertips with purple ink from the mimeo machine, and I depend on e-mail to deepen contacts with colleagues and friends all over the world. But, taking a breath for a moment, I have to ask– is there really no place left for the thousands of us who love reading newspapers and magazines in their traditional print forms? Aren’t there enough of us left to make it economically feasible to keep some books alive as physical objects of varying shapes and sizes (unlike the one-size fits all Kindle)? Why can’t we have many different kinds of “information retrieval”? In her wonderful collection of letters, 84 Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff corresponds with a London bookseller about her love of used books, the bindings, the paper, the varied traces previous readers have left of their own journeys through the pages. Surely we can love all of this and still have access to these “ancient scrolls” without being left behind.
Needless to say, the article in the Boston Globe inspired many letters decrying the loss of the library at Cushing Academy—the Boston/Cambridge area is full of book lovers and now possibly endangered rooms where you can go to sit and be surrounded by books. But we are not alone, even if we tend to be older and less plugged in.
Celebrate and appreciate the new—after all, I am writing this for an electronic version of one of my favorite magazines—but let us hold on as well to our libraries and bookstores full of print. Don’t throw out the books with the Betamax.