Bells, Whistles, & Books: Going Paperless

Speaking of disbelief, several days ago I read about the New England high school that was going bookless in their library. I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind.  You can read the article here. My first reaction, probably like a lot of people, was shock. A library without books?

Of course, they will have electronic books, a few anyway, so that is something, but they are clearing out their 20,000 book collection to “improve” their library.


I am going to try to avoid my knee-jerk reaction (!) look at it from all sides, and play devil’s advocate.

The principal is going to replace those books with computers and Kindles or Sony readers for the students. The electronic books certainly do have their advantages. You can have access to thousands of books at a moment’s notice (for a price of course), they certainly save trees and storage space, there are all kinds of handy features like bookmarks, font size change capabilities (and more fun, slick stuff), and for transporting books, they certainly can’t be beat. One Kindle can hold 1,500 books! That could sure save a lot of backs. All good stuff.

Yes, I know I have a strong attachment to the old “scrolls” which is what the principal compared books to.  Guilty as charged. I love the texture of paper, the act of turning pages, even the smell of books–well, most books anyway. But I have to remember, that may only be a sentimental attachment on my part, and a new generation of readers may not have this attachment at all.

I also have to admit to a certain awe every time I walk into a library and I see rows and rows of books, the wisdom of the ages, and then perhaps stumbling down the wrong row and discovering books I didn’t even know existed. But perhaps awe is not enough to justify the expense of books, and there are ways to stumble upon books on the internet so the browsing argument won’t really hold up either.  So, trying to get past the tradition and habits that many of us are used to, are there any advantages the traditional book can offer?

My first thought was that there is a certain spatial awareness that plays into my understanding of a story. I am at the beginning. The middle. So close to the end. Three pages left. Omigod, I’m almost there. The end. Sigh.

Didn’t mean to get carried away there, but there is a spatial quality to a book as I read and flip back and forth, rereading passages. On a computer you can flip back and forth too, and maybe seeing the page number or scroll bar at the side is enough for some readers, but on a computer, one page is the same as another, its place within a book doesn’t stand out. I write my entire books for the most part on a computer, but periodically I have to print it out to really “see” the story, and to understand its progression. Reading it is on a computer is not enough to grasp the story as a whole. I can’t help but feel the reading experience of an electronic book might too closely resembles the reading experience of surfing for information online, where pages encourage skimming, while real paper slows us down and encourages lingering. But again, playing devil’s advocate, this may just be my own perception developed through habit and tradition.

But there is an advantage that I think has nothing to do with old habits. A traditional book offers no distractions. No pop-ups, no games, no bells, no whistles. Just you, the book, and your thoughts. Time to sit, reflect, ponder, and make connections. How often when looking at a computer screen can you do that without the temptation to fill it with one of those bells and whistles? With a book the only bells and whistles are your thoughts. That is no small thing.

And finally, maybe I have been reading too many dystopian novels lately, but I couldn’t get it out of my mind that if we eventually do become a nation of entirely virtual books that we are 1) only one Mega Energy Crisis away from losing them all. Kindles have to be recharged. Books do not. And, 2) What is to stop a hacker or extreme political regime from reaching into my electronic device and altering my books or zapping them away altogether?

In fact, this already happened with some Kindle users when Amazon took back an illegal copy of a book. Amazon retrieved the books without the owner’s knowledge or permission. The Kindle users didn’t truly own their own books apparently. Yes, this time it was an illegal copy of a book that shouldn’t have been sold in the first place and Amazon did apologize, but it illustrates that your Kindle is not the same as a private library. Other people can access it. 

Another thing that perplexed me was that the principal noted that on one given day only 48 books had been checked out of the library. I had to scratch my head that his response to this was to get rid of the books! What about looking at the school curriculum? If reading is truly valued at the school, is there time allowed in the curriculum for students to choose books to read? You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip or more reading hours out of student who already has every minute of his reading life scheduled.   But maybe I am off base here. I would love to hear a librarian’s viewpoint on why books aren’t being checked out of a library.

Another thought on this point though, is how many times have I gone to the library and not checked out a book, but used them while I was there?  Only probably a billion times, and that doesn’t show up on check-out records.

Either way, the principal may as well save his money on the Kindles if he thinks they are going to give his students access to more books. To replace the library’s collection of books he is buying eighteen Kindles. There are 450 students at the school. I hope that eighteen in the article was a typo.

Honestly, I really do think the new technology is wonderful, and the electronic readers can certainly fill a need at times. I applaud the school for wanting to stay at the forefront of technology. It could be their entire student body is quite wealthy (from the 42K tuition I’m guessing they are) and perhaps all these students have volumes of real books in personal libraries, and their own personal Kindles as well, so the school library was seen as a redundancy (reaching), but I really see this as an aberration rather than a model for the vast majority of libraries—the 12K cappuccino machine is a wee bit of a tip-off that we’re not on planet Earth anymore. Not the norm or the model and I sure hope not the “start of a new era” as their math teacher described it. At least not in my neck of the woods.

What are you thoughts? Short-sighted? Brilliant? A tad extreme? Any other advantages to the the paper variety of books?

How would you feel if your local library did the same?

Mary E. Pearson is the author of five novels for teens, most recently, The Miles Between just out in September, and newly out in paperback, The Adoration of Jenna Fox which has been optioned by 20th Century Fox for a major motion picture and translated into thirteen languages, both from Henry Holt Books.


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