Cushings Bookless Library

Cushing Academy's (Massachusetts) decision to move toward a "bookless" library a few years ago certainly created a stir both inside and outside the library profession. A front-page article from The Boston Globe, with a picture of the academy's headmaster, James Tracy, standing amid broken down bookshelves and scratching his head, conveyed an impression of trepidation and doubt. In reality the decision was made both confidently and strategically as part of the academy's long-range plan to build a "21st Century Leadership" curriculum.

The library, with its balanced collection of digital databases and rows of print materials, was seen as being significantly out of balance with respect to how most information was already being consumed and processed just nine years into the new century. Students arriving as freshmen hardly knew of a pre-digital age. They, and presumably all students to follow, were clearly "digital natives" in need of new tools and techniques to manage the digital information all around them. Not surprisingly, students typically walked past rows of expensive books to get to devices that best represented information to them: computers.

The academy's administration smartly targeted the library as the campus entity best able to teach those new tools, provide convenient access to a broad range of digital resources and datasets, and find new and creative ways to encourage immersive, long-form, reading in a paperless 21st century environment. Targeting the library was by no means a given since librarians have remained so closely associated with paper-based books (both outside and inside our profession) and much less, if at all, with digital information. In fact, for many students, and even parents, administrators, and faculty, the librarian is considered anachronistic in this Internet era. Many educational thinkers believe that the Internet already places into our students' palms more information than they can possibly process. Many argue it is now up to the teacher and a more modern classroom dynamic to manage this rapid, Internet-fed information stream to support learning (Bonk 2010).

As someone new to secondary education, I was rather surprised that many forward-thinking, educational thinkers barely gave lip service to role of the library in their 21st century education models. Librarians were rarely invited to the table to discuss new policies and pedagogies. This should greatly alarm school librarians and perhaps cause the profession to rethink current approaches and priorities. Instead, the conventional wisdom still seems to be that school libraries should continue to provide a balanced approach to both digital and print-based information for as long as possible, and that traditional and future library roles are not mutually exclusive (Gray 2009).

However, in the face of rapid change, new missions, and budget shortfalls, the time for balance may be ending. A "balanced approach" may go against conventional organizational wisdom that taking on a significant new challenge requires either substantially more resources or an equally significant shift in existing resources and attention. It's also unclear what "balance" really means in this context. Are we talking about a balance with the past (how far back?), a balance with media formats (how many formats?), or a balance with how information is shared and published outside the walls of a school environment (which is Cushing Academy's interpretation)?

No matter our own interpretations and opinions, what school leaders need to see sooner rather than later is evidence that libraries can effectively provide services in a digital environment. Librarians must show how they can leverage digital information to provide access to a much larger set of copyrighted information than was possible in the past; they must show how students can be drawn to using library resources as easily as they are drawn to free resources on the Internet; they must show how long-form reading can still thrive in a digital environment. In short, librarians need to quickly demonstrate that a 21st century school library will be well used and necessary.

At Cushing Academy we have been trying to accomplish these goals over the last few years by focusing on three important tasks made possible by our shift to digital resources:

  1. Changing our library software platform by moving away from traditional Integrated Library System (ILS) functionality and toward a platform that is better integrated with newer web services, including a best-in-class federated searching service;
  2. Developing an improved acquisitions model that leverages the unique attributes of digital content; and
  3. Transforming the library's physical space into collaborative work area that celebrates information gathering, analysis, and sharing (Corbett 2011).

We are well on our way to achieving our goals. Our library space is packed with students throughout the day; we have created a very dynamic and (we think) effective library website; our database usage rates have skyrocketed; our students now have immediate access to more than 175,000 copyrighted academic eBooks, all available for simultaneous use 24 hours per day; and our students are reading more long-form fiction than ever before. We have purchased more than 1,000 popular reading titles based almost entirely on student and faculty demand, selected from nearly a million titles immediately available as Kindle eBooks. It has been evident to us that long-form reading and digital resources are not mutually exclusive.

Nor are collection development services and a Patron-Driven Acquisitions (PDA) model mutually exclusive. While the librarian's traditional role of collection development was necessitated by the limited physical collections of the past, and arguably should be of less importance moving forward, this role is still viable in a digital environment. Our librarians select titles appropriate for course subjects and independent reading and draw attention to them in a number of different ways (through library course pages, rotating video displays, Animoto videos, and so on). If our selections are good, and students respond, then they are purchased immediately upon request. In short, you don't have to own a title upfront in order to highlight its value and provide quick and easy access to it in a digital environment.

However, we have not met all our goals. We still face barriers getting copyrighted, subscription-based materials used adequately (at least by our librarian standards) in the classroom. It's still easier to access, manipulate, and share free web resources -- and it probably always will be no matter how much time librarians are able to devote to improving access to subscription content. Without ongoing faculty support requiring students to take the time to appropriately vet and cite quality web resources (and thereby increase the relative value of already vetted subscription content) this will continue to be a difficult barrier to overcome. There is also considerable room for improvement on the eBook lending process and the age-appropriateness of most of the 175,000 academic eBook titles to which we provide access.

We are confident that these remaining issues will be overcome, especially as school librarians become even more engaged with digital content delivery. In our circumstance, with our 21st century leadership initiative, our 9-12 grade student population, our long-established one-to-one laptop program, and enough resources to ensure an adequate supply of eReaders, this shift toward digital content has allowed us to better align our library's services with Cushing Academy's overall mission. It has improved our institutional balance with how information is created and shared in our 21st century culture, while still keeping our students engaged with the centuries old skill of reading.


Bonk, Curtis J., "How Technology Is Changing School." Educational Leadership 67, 7 (April 2010): 60-65. (As Summarized in Effective Schools Research Abstracts Volume 25, Issue 1)

Corbett, Thomas B. "The Changing Role of the School Library's Physical Space." School Library Monthly, March 31, 2011.

Gray, Liz, Cheryl Steele, and Cassandra Barnett. "Technology and the Printed Page Are Not Mutually Exclusive." School Library Journal 55, No. 11 (November 2009): 10-11. Advanced Placement Source, EBSCOhost (accessed November 20, 2010).

"Welcome to the Library. Say goodbye to the books." The Boston Globe, September 4, 2009.

Tom Corbett is library director at Cushing Academy (Massachusetts).