Do School Libraries Need Books?

The New York Times ran an article with this headline a few weeks ago (yes, I’m slow). It’s not a new question – LibraryThing have been discussing a similar issue for a wee while now. It seems that the arrival of the iPad has triggered lots of speculation about the “inevitable” takeover of eBooks.

And there are so many aspects of this whole question to react to. On the one hand I’m an Apple girl, so the iPad strikes me as a good thing. I love my iPod, use it all the time, and buy more music, not less. (As budgetters will tell you, it’s much easier to spend more in small amounts than big chunks.)  And quite a few people have commented that eBooks are great for taking on long trips – much less space taken up, and much less likely to run out of reading material (a regular problem for me). Having said that, I’ve never used one. Maybe I’ll find the screen unpleasant to look at, and get annoyed by the touchscreen for scrolling through pages.

And I do love books. I love the feel of them. The smell of them. The way they look in a bookcase, or piled up beside the bed, or sitting there in a bookstore, looking out at me, as irresistible as a row of puppies. And there’s nothing as pleasurable as lying in the bath reading, with a glass of something suitable nearby and temperature control just a toe-twiddle away. (Add the sound of rain falling outside, the scent of it through the window, and you’ve pretty much got my idea of paradise.) Or lying in bed, stealing an extra half hour in the morning with the book sharing my pillow. That, my friends, is bliss. And I can’t see an electronic device in either of those situations. (Stop it. Stop it now. We’re talking about eBooks.)

But that’s a digression. Back to the original question: do school libraries need books?

God, I hope so. I can’t imagine the libraries I loved as a kid being replaced by banks of computer terminals. And maybe there are a couple of very good reasons why they not only need,them, but must keep them.

The first is the flimsiest, and it’s down to mood and personal bias. Consider the picture of a good school library. Walk around it, in your head. Lots of books, a couple of librarians, seats, desks, generally quiet. A good quiet. The only thing I can see in my head when I try to imagine all the books gone and replaced by terminals is an eCafe. (Without the coffee, good or bad.)Über-functional. Desks, terminals, keyboards, fairly quiet. Usually a very efficient use of space. But would you want to spend much time there?! How would a library with no books be any different to that? A library is a sanctuary as well as a repository of information. An eCafe is clinical.

There’s also the fact that when students can access all of the research material on a screen and then just copy and paste into another document, you are going to have a hell of a time preventing plagiarism. (If you want an interesting twist on this sort of thing, have a look at Laura Miller’s article on the controversy surrounding the ‘novel’ Axolotl Roadkill. Hmm. Remind me what ‘novel’ means again?) Ok, maybe you can use some sort of tracking programme to monitor essays etc for unacceptable overuse of someone else’s words. How long do you reckon it’ll be before some bright spark writes a programme that changes just enough words to pass computer inspection?

But that’s also not much of an argument. So here’s one that might sway you. This comes from my own experience as a writer. The physical act of writing something down, of copying it by hand from another source, does more to fix it in your mind that an amount of copying and pasting ever will. Most writers I know actually think better when they’re writing. I know I certainly do. Maybe it’s down to the difficulties – having to prop a book open with one hand and repeat the words to yourself as you scribble them down with the other. But there’s an intimacy of engagement that comes from that sort of relationship with the written word that can’t be matched by mouse clicks and drags.

Yes, but there’s nothing stopping you writing it down from a screen …

Argh! Go away. You have no soul. Hang on, one last attempt, which my ex-librarian mother will be horrified by. Comments. Marginalia. The awareness of being connected to the people who read this book before you. Community. The vertical axis of history intersecting with the horizontal axis of society …

You’re defending books in libraries by calling on people to deface them?!

Go away. No, really. Go. But you can leave all your books behind. I’ll give them a good home. Yes. Yes. You must leave them behind. You’ve proven yourself unfit. Think of it as an intervention.

Not a chance.


4 Replies to “Do School Libraries Need Books?”

  1. Amazon keeps trying to get me to buy a Kindle, and when (just out of curiosity – I don’t actually want one) I go to their site to check it out, it tells me it’s not available in New Zealand. It wouldn’t take much of a computer program to figure out they shouldn’t promote it to addresses ending in

    One drawback of electronic books (apart from all the sensual aspects) is that if it can be downloaded to your electronic device, it can also be wiped from your device ie limited time downloads. I want to keep my books. (Although e-books might be good for textbooks, I have lots of obsolete textbooks in technical areas lying around the house)

  2. Jo,

    I don’t know about you, but I work in front of a computer all day and headaches and tired eyes are routine. And I need a coffee after about an hour. I don’t have the same problem with a book, with which I can spend hours at a time.

    Insofar as school libraries needing books goes, sure, but for me it’s more a question of which books they need and which books they’d be better off without – but that’s another question.



  3. I feel very strongly on this topic, I am in school so it matters, in a way, even more to me, I think that schools NEED books!

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