Call me a relic, call me what you will
Say I’m old-fashioned, say I’m over the hill
— Bob Seger, “Old Time Rock and Roll”
Call me old fashioned if you like, but I like books.
It’s not surprising, since I’m an English teacher. You sort of expect us to be holed up in libraries in our free time and absentmindedly threatening traffic patterns like Belle in Beauty and the Beast.
Of course I like books. I’m supposed to like books. And not just books in general.
I like physical books.
Make no mistake, here: I’m also a fan of the digital age. I actually read on a screen using the Kindle app or Libby (which is delightful, by the way) probably more often than not. I even have the Snapchats.
But … I still like physical books.
And not just because they smell nice (hopefully). Aesthetics aside, books are simply good to have around.
A growing epidemic
Many schools across the country are getting rid of libraries and replacing them with various iterations of “learning centers.” This overhaul often means schools and libraries are simply throwing out books in favor of a more modern, technological approach to learning in our 21st-century digital landscape.
This goal is, of course, an admirable one. Updating the way we teach students is absolutely vital. I’m of the opinion that students should be taught how to write and tell stories in the short format in which they live the vast majority of their lives.
Maybe we should be teaching students how to tweet. But teaching how to tweet doesn’t mean we no longer teach how to write a 1,000-word essay. If a student can write a killer essay, he or she can probably knock out a meaningful 280 characters if the need arises.
The reverse does not hold true.
Books are kind of like that.
While it is important for students to have instant access to the knowledge that the modern world promises, having physical books around generates an atmosphere of learning that no architecture, modern lighting, smart board or screen can replicate.
The case against books
I’ve heard a number of objections.
“Teens don’t read anyway.”
“They can get books on their Kindle.”
Or, worst: “In today’s world, students don’t really need to read books.”
I think the most common objection to keeping books in the learning centers of our futures is that students never check books out. If they’re not reading them, why are the books even there?
“See, students just don’t read!”
Just because books aren’t being checked out doesn’t mean that they’re not being read! Many a curious teen will pick something off a shelf, thumb through it and put it back. They didn’t sit and read that book, no. But maybe that experience opens their mind just a little bit to reading in the future. Or perhaps they saw even an outdated book on rocket science, got curious, and decided to go home and look it up on YouTube.
Books create an atmosphere of learning.
There’s something profoundly different about studying in a quiet, empty hall and studying in a reading room lined with books.
Geoffrey T. Freeman touched on this in a report for the Council on Library and Information Resources, saying:
“While students are intensely engaged in using new technologies, they also want to enjoy the library as a contemplative oasis. Interestingly, a significant majority of students still considers the traditional reading room their favorite area of the library-the great, vaulted, light-filled space, whose walls are lined with books they may never pull off the shelf.”
Nothing quite says “this is a place to learn” than a space dedicated to books, even in a learning center that’s otherwise focused around the latest in technology (which, in all honesty, is likely outdated by the time students get their hands on it … but that’s a different problem entirely!).
“Learning centers” should be a place for students to do just that: to learn, to expand their minds, to explore. And having books available for students to browse is vital to that exploration.
To those who say “they can just get books on their Kindle” … you can’t beat browsing physical books.
There’s nothing quite like going to a section of a bookstore or library that’s centered around a subject you’re interested in, brushing your fingers along the spines of dozens of books that promise new knowledge and perspectives. Finding one that catches your eye. Opening it and thumbing through. Deciding to check it out and take it home.
Having it change your life.
Sorry Amazon. You can’t do that on Kindle.
Our students know this, too. Nielsen reported that “over half of teens are still looking for books on library or bookstore shelves.”
Until you can walk through a digital library and open books at random; until the technology becomes as satisfying to the physical senses as the text is to the cognitive self, there’s still a need for shiny, gorgeous, satisfying books.”
— Nick Harkaway
The last objection — students don’t really need to read books — just breaks my heart. Books in general are the way in which we communicate with our past and stay in touch with the traditions which make us — for better or for worse — who we are today.
Books tell us the story of who we are.
Does everyone like reading? No.
Do we expect all our students to become voracious readers? Of course not!
And that’s fine. Not even all teachers and educators need to like reading.
I tell my students this every year. To each of my American Literature class periods, I say something along the lines of “I don’t expect you all to love books by the end of the year. I do hope, though, that you can appreciate them and understand why they’re valuable and why people do love them.”
Keeping books around might not directly help more students read and love reading, but if nothing else it shows a reverence on our part for learning and books that just might rub off.
“I answer that,”
Besides the atmosphere of learning and browsing ability and cultural value, there are a few more clear reasons to keep physical books around.
The first is purely academic: reading on paper boosts retention.
This has been proven over and over again. Multiple studies have shown that “students who read texts in print scored significantly better on the reading comprehension test than students who read the texts digitally.”
I see this in my own classroom. I work at a school with a 1:1 iPad program, and, while my own experience is, of course, anecdotal, I notice a marked increase in my students’ attention span and retention when we read off paper as opposed to on the iPad.
While reading a print book, it’s simply easier to take notes and remember where things are in the text (different parts in the book feel different, while on an ebook every page is the same).
As educational institutions in particular, why would we not support student learning and retention as much as possible?
Besides that, students prefer reading physical books.
This is less of a scientific observation and more of an experience-based observation on my own part and the part of others. When I ask my students, most shrug and say “I don’t know. I just like it better.” Others have been more specific: “One student described this attitude as a preference to ‘own something (rather) than just use it.”
Now in a library setting, students don’t “own something,” so this particular line of argument doesn’t matter quite as much. But the point still stands.
If students prefer reading physical books to ebooks, why would we deny them those books?
“Why not just keep a decentralized library, with books in the classrooms?”
Why not both?
I’m a huge fan of having a classroom library, and I’ve been slowly building mine since I started teaching. Students absolutely should have relevant books accessible in their classrooms. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have access to books elsewhere.
“Well … they can just go to a library.”
Until that library says the same thing.
As educators, my fellow teachers and I have a mission to promote learning. Sometimes, this means adapting ourselves to new technology we’re unfamiliar with. Other times, this means allowing our students access to books that don’t necessarily fit with our idea of a clean, sanitized future.
Having a library with books shows everyone who walks through the door that this is a Place of Learning.
That’s a great goal for a classroom, of course, and my students have wandered over to the shelves in mine countless times.
But shouldn’t that be a goal for schools and libraries as a whole, too? To have a central “learning center” that supports learning in new ways while also containing books, the visible signs of a commitment to education?
A library with books is the definitive place of learning, a place where we can browse and discover, a place where we can find a piece of our history and learn more about who we are.
Our mission is to provide an education to our young people, the future of our world.
Our mission is, yes, to provide “learning centers” in their various iterations.
Our mission is to provide access to good, physical books.
And if following our mission make us “old-fashioned” … well, is that such a bad thing?
“Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye.”
— John Milton