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The Book-Free Library

By Sarah Klein

It would seem to be a contradiction. What is a library if not a collection of books? But just as our everyday communication has changed to embrace email, texting and social media, so too has the previously sedate world of literature, dusty reference books, and quiet contemplation.

Libraries have slowly been shifting away from the image of silent study halls toward the concept of community gathering spaces. Whispering has given way to "loud rooms", where conversation is encouraged, and stacks of lightly-used books are being replaced by rows of computers. The general mission remains the same: a library is a place where the public can access and share information for free. But the way we access and share information is drastically changing.

Until recently, actual books were still very much part of the equation. Now, books are increasingly available online, on electronic handheld readers, or even as audio books on iPods and MP3 players. To browse a title, it's now often easier to log on to the Internet than visit a library. While many readers believe there is something uniquely satisfying about physically holding a book and turning the pages, others are ready for the reading experience to evolve.

Cushing Academy in Massachusetts is home to one of the first school libraries to commit completely to a digital future. The Academy is giving away its entire collection of over 20,000 books to make room for a new $500,000 "e-Library", which will be comprised of Internet-connected flat-screen TVs, electronic readers, and terminals they ambitiously refer to as "Portals of Civilization".

Cushing's internal research has shown that students rarely rely on printed books for their academic work, and instead search for information online. They also strongly believe in learning through communication. Spaces that previously housed bound books will become community-building areas, where students are encouraged to interact through shared teacher and student environments, including a coffee shop, a faculty lounge and common areas for study.

Critics of the new system question if digital libraries are really the future. They claim students will not have adequate access to the same breadth of titles, as it's harder to stumble across undiscovered titles online. Screens may also promote quick skimming of literature rather than in-depth reading.

But the school administration views it differently. "When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books," Headmaster James Tracy told the Boston Globe. "We're not discouraging students from reading. We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology."

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