The decision by Cushing Academy to move to a totally digital library environment has got me thinking about how a learning technologist would design an academic library.
One thing I can tell you - we wouldn't do what Cushing Academy did. Getting rid of books and replacing them with a "learning center", large Web connected flat-screen TVs, and special laptop carrels and a bunch of e-readers (not to mention a $12,000 cappuccino machine) demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the centrality of books for learning.
By books, however, I don't mean just the paper kind. Cushing makes the mistake of thinking that Web savvy young learners don't require the richness of expert content found in books, or the essential learning that takes place through serendipitous browsing. Rather, students need to be given a wide range of choice in the method that they find, interact with, consume, share, and build on the content found in books.
A learning technologist designing tomorrow's academic library would keep the books, but make sure that they were available in paper, e-paper, and audio format. Students would be able to easily search for and download the book content in digital format (e-paper or audio) from the academic library site or the course management system. By having the book (or the journal, magazine or newspaper) in multiple formats we would insure that all types of learners would have access to the material.
A student could listen to an assigned book in audio format on the treadmill or while waiting for the shuttle, read a chapter on her iPhone in between classes, and settle in with the paper copy in a quiet corner of campus. Providing the library holdings in multiple formats recognizes that students want to consume this content in multiple formats. They want to read in small chunks, on different devices, in different places.
I understand the objections to the vision. Amazon has pretty well locked up the audiobook market with their purchase of Audible.com. Amazon does not seem very interested in making digital audiobook copies available to academic libraries. Same with e-books. The closed Kindle format combined with no library centric business model has made it almost impossible for academic libraries to use Amazon as a provider and partner. Besides, digital copies are expensive. There is no way to buy copies in every format, even if they were available.
My response is that these problems represent a wonderful opportunity for our academic libraries. Books, magazine, journals and newspapers in digital format (audio and e-book) are all goods that cannot be found for free on the Web. To get this content it is necessary to pay. Academic libraries have an opportunity to do what they did for paper books. Take an expensive, scarce commodity and through the library model of cost sharing make these items available to everyone in their communities. The history of the library is one of making what was once scarce (paper books) abundant. Through the inter-library loan consortiums today's libraries have largely overcome the problem of scarcity for the paper book. If my library does not have the book I want they will get it to me within a couple of days. However, if I want to listen to the audiobook version or read it on my e-book reader I need to purchase the book myself. The academic library should be about providing books essential for scholarship and teaching, not providing paper books.
The last thing a library should do is buy a bunch of Kindles or other e-books to hand-out. The key is the content, the books, not the devices. Sure, a few e-books readers or iPods may be good to have to subsidize some students (or catalyze growth), but the real costs (and barriers) are in the availability of content. If the academic library had the same selection of e-books as the Amazon Kindle store or audiobooks as Audible then they would get enormous utilization. Imagine being able to assign as an instructor a chapter in a book, and easily include links to the paper, e-book, audiobook version in your course management system.
The first step, as with most things, is laying out a vision of where we can go with our academic libraries. Once we have the vision I believe in the energy and the creativity of my librarian colleagues to overcome any obstacle. What do you think of the vision? What steps would you take to make this vision a reality?