"Yes, We Have No Bananas...": A Reflection on Cushing Academy

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Do you remember that song? I first heard it when I watched the original movie Sabrina with Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart sang it to her "Yes, we have no bananas/we have no bananas today." Something recently happened that had me singing that tune under my breath, but I was thinking about books, not bananas.

When my excellent friend and librarian, Laura, sent out a note with the original story about Cushing Academy's radical move to give away their book collection right before my opening faculty meeting, I knew I had to mention it. My fellow librarian, Ivy Miller and I, were astonished and a little scandalized. We went through a renovation to update our library just a little over a year ago and we spent a great deal of time with our kids, faculty, administration, and donors explaining to them how we were planning a cutting edge library program that has the perfect balance of print and electronic sources. In our regular classes in the library, we teach how only a small percentage of the world of print is available electronically (you can imagine this is where we are also educating our students about copyright and intellectual property), and then we show them techniques to find what is out there. We also spend a sometimes exorbitant (at least in relation to my budget) amount of money on high-quality college databases, so our students are ready for a college environment and know what the invisible web holds. It's gratifying when our alumni come back and tell us, "Can you believe it? I was the only one who knew how to use the ProQuest Historical Newspapers database! I had to teach the other kids in my class so they wouldn't fail."

When I did my opening of year spiel to the faculty, I mentioned the late-breaking news and was gratified at the collective gasp of horror that rippled through the room. My statement was actually, "I want you to know that my one consoling thought when I read this article was that I was so lucky - all of you would revolt if someone suggested this because you are all such great users of the print and the electronic sources of the library." Teachers were coming up to me afterward with comments like:
"But you said not everything is in print, how are kids going to be familiar with seminal works in a discipline?"
"Who is going to teach them all those research techniques you show them? How will they know about the reference books that aren't electronic?"
"But how are they going to find books to read for fun? They'll have to buy them and not everyone can afford that."

Better yet were the quotes from the kids sitting at our new information bar while Ivy and I were talking over the repercussions of this decision (we gave them the article to read).
"They did WHAT? Are they stupid?"
"I can't take a Kindle in the bathtub."
"Why did the librarians let them do that?"
"Where did the books go? They didn't burn them, did they?"
"Just because these Cushing kids did 95% of their research online, doesn't mean it was good research."
"That is the dumbest thing I've ever heard of a school doing. Did you get the new Tamora Pierce book in, Mrs. Lewis?"

And they were all correct. I was worried about these things, too.

I'm going to be honest here. I know AMAZING independent school librarians and great administrators, but I've also seen that sometimes independent schools become a safe harbor for eccentric personalities. Sometimes the home of these personalities is in the library, sometimes in the headmaster's office, and sometimes in the classroom. And because of the patriarchal nature of independent schools, these people are like your crazy aunt in the family - she's in the TV room and people just avoid her and maybe make little jokes at her expense. In an independent school, these characters are sometimes just ignored and then either make a nutty decision (see above article) or they are trampled on or fired. In this case, all of the above may have happened. I'm thinking that this could be partly what's going on at Cushing - dysfunctional New England boarding school culture at its finest.

So the next thing I know, I get a nice note from my major library donor, Charles, who headed up our campaign for the library renovation (a highly successful campaign, I might add, since people love to say yes to Charles). He lives in Boston and clipped The Boston Globe article adding in his note a very funny caption of Headmaster Tracy in the old library (the headmaster is scratching his head looking at the old library). Charles and his fellow graduates from 1958 all understood that there needed to be a balance between print and electronic sources (this class loves technology). They enjoyed seeing kids whip off the books from our displays with a squeal and equally loved how kids worshipfully opened up the new MacBooks when we had the cart delivered. But they understand, as this educator does not, that kids like to read...a book. (Not all new YA titles are available electronically, BTW - and even if they were, I can imagine what it would be like to have had only 18 Kindles when the new Twilight series books came out. Kids would have been scratching each others' eyes out!)

Kids do read and 18 Kindles are not going to cut it (one per student that they own might be a help), particularly when the terms of use agreement from Amazon.com clearly state that they are not for institutions to own or loan out, but are for personal use only. If you're going to use technology, Cushing Academy, please, please read the terms of use!

So I guess I'm worried about Cushing Academy, I'm worried about kids using technology, but not thoughtfully or well and not empowered with the knowledge of all the print sources they are missing that their college professor is going to expect them to use. I'm worried about the library staff having to learn how to use a $12,000 cappuccino machine and administer a program that may not sync with their values, and I'm worried about kids not being able to browse for a good book to read out on the grass in the bright sun on a Saturday. And I'm worried about Cushing come reaccreditation time when Headmaster Tracy might be spending a lot of time explaining why he did what he did and living with the results.