Words on words: A truly bad and dangerous idea

4 mins read

When I look at Ballet I don’t see what those who love Ballet see. Consequently I would never be found in the position of making important decisions affecting the production or direction of Ballet. Such reasoning has not commended itself to James Tracy, the Headmaster of the Cushing Academy in Massachusetts, a private college preparatory institution of some 144 years. Tracy has spearheaded an initiative to discard the entire Cushing Academy library and replace the books with three large flat screen TV’s and 18 ebook readers. “Where the reference desk was, they are building a $50,000 coffee shop that will include a $12,000 cappuccino machine.” (Read the A Library Without Books article in the Boston Globe for details.)

Unsurprisingly this action has inspired unmitigated horror among people in the book world. Josie Leavitt, for example wrote a very fine essay on the subject entitled The Death of a Library. Tracy’s position on books is that “When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books.” Fine, but then have a yard sale to dispose of whatever books are in the Tracy home. The issue here is not that Tracy personally has no feeling for books, but rather that he has enforced his sensibility on an entire academic community, much of which, as the article indicates, does not share it. Tracy’s statement that “This is the future. All those who fail to get ahead of this curve, embrace its possibilities, and try to optimize its potential for humane and humanizing contingencies, will face certain reduction to irrelevance within ten years” would only pass from the lips of someone who has mistaken being totalitarian for being a visionary. The real problem is that people let him do it.

Book technologies are not an either or situation, unless you are of a totalitarian mindset. Digital and print books are no more mutually exclusive than are walking, bicycles, and automobiles. When it comes to reading books experience is the central factor, concerning which efficency is only a component. This is not the case when it comes to searching for and cataloging information, however collecting information and absorbing it are two very different uses of language should never be confused. People hostile and insensitive to the area of their appointment are not a rarity, consider James Watt’s tenure as Secretary of the Interior for example. This sort of inversion is always dangerous. Tracy should be running a Starbucks not a school. Any book lover will be horrified by Tracy’s actions, not because book lover’s are luddites, but because they are sensible to the complex interelation of tactile experience, ownership, and durability, with the human imaginative experience, not to mention the role which our tradititional publishing medium plays in the filtering process. If ever there was a cautionary tale it is the tale of the Cushing Academy Library. Note to selves, if such a movement is underfoot in our community, let us speak out against it.

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