Is It a Library if It Doesn't Have Any Books?

When the headmaster of Cushing Academy, James Tracy, announced his school's plans to remove all the books from its library, the pronouncement did not go unnoticed. Not only the school community, but the public at large, had swift and strong reactions to the plan, currently being implemented at the esteemed Massachusetts independent school based on an architectural design by The S/L/A/M Collaborative.

Needless to say, the announcement by one of the nation's oldest co-ed boarding schools that it was about to create the first "bookless" library on an upper school campus elicited a mixture of shock and support when the Boston Globe ran an article about the Cushing plan. A number of readers decried what would be lost ("I'm going to miss them. I love books. I've grown up with them, and there's something lost when they're virtual. There's a sensual side to them —- the smell, the feel, the physicality of a book is something really special.''), but others applauded (albeit cautiously) the innovation as a thoughtful attempt to create the library of the future, to utilize the best of technology to enhance students' access to the broadest range of information and knowledge and to respond to the learning development of the internet generation.

The renovation was to be done in two phases. The first phase would eliminate half of the volumes, add a coffee/snack bar, upgrade the technology infrastructure, increase campus library “awareness” and generally refresh and update the look, function and code compliance of the existing library.

Today, a year later, Phase I of the library transformation is complete and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. SLAM designers helped Cushing create a new cyber café where the existing circulation desk was located, and relocated the circulation desk to be more central. The cyber café includes tall tables with stools, booths, a snack/coffee counter and a behind-the-counter work area. Half the volume count was removed, and all the furniture was replaced with updated lounge pieces equipped with tablet arms, low carrels and study tables.

Added program space includes a student project area, a faculty lounge, an updated children's area, an outdoor patio and two new classrooms — one a conventional room with tables and ergonomic seats; the second made up of upholstered lounge chairs with tablet arms. Technology upgrades allowed for large monitors at the library entrance used for streaming information, interactive white boards in both new classrooms, additional tabletop computers and laptop connectivity throughout. At the completion of each project, SLAM conducts a post-occupancy evaluation, which includes interviewing users and students regarding their experiences in the new space. Their thoughts are summarized below:

E-readers:  The library uses a combination of e-readers to support quality offline reading of e-books. These include Amazon Kindles, Sony Readers and iRiver Stories. This approach gives Cushing Academy students and faculty quick access to hundreds of thousands of digital titles versus access to only tens of thousands of printed volumes that used up valuable floor space in the past. Managing the different e-book readers, formats and Digital Rights Management (DRM) is the biggest challenge the library faces with this technology. The Kindles are used primarily to support leisure and personal interest reading but require mediation from the library staff for students and faculty to use them. The library's non-Kindle e-readers (as well as non-Kindle e-readers owned by students and staff) are used for access to e-books more closely tied to the curriculum and are available to students and faculty 24/7 without library staff mediation.   

Change in Library Demographic: There is an increased population of students who are working together in the library/café, and in the classrooms, which creates more noise and disturbance. Study rooms allow for intense group work that doesn't disturb the rest of the library, and noise-cancelling headphones help those who need complete quiet while in the library proper. The ability to meet your teacher in a setting outside of the classroom is well worth it.

Teaching: Cushing is made up of many different teachers with various ways of teaching, so the library offers the opportunity for a uniquely flexible classroom experience. It offers an open classroom environment where students bring their laptops and sit in "comfy" chairs with tablet arms, or a more formal classroom set up with training tables and an interactive white board or traditional large open tables for group work.

Cyber Café: The café will bring in the students, and if it is fun and comfortable, they will stay, which is the whole idea. It is not only a big draw, but also a money maker and a way to offer healthier snacks. It allows students to hang out and feel comfortable when they need a break without taking them away from the library.

Phase II of the transformation is expected to relocate adjacent classrooms and create study rooms for quiet work, eliminate additional volumes, add more tables and carrels to fill the open space and replace carpet throughout the library. A dark, rich wood was introduced in Phase I to contrast and complement the existing lighter oak. Phase II will see the use of this wood continue in a new stool-height counter outside the café, new railings at stairs and ramp transitions and a restaining of some existing wood base and shelf conditions.

A new entrance renovation from the now popular outdoor patio space will be the finishing touch to the job. Originally, the space was the teacher’s lounge, and was planned to be converted into the school store due to its ideal location directly off the new patio. The idea was to further help “attract” students; however, the overwhelming success of the renovated library has changed this idea completely. Now, the new entry point will be a more formal entrance gallery, where student artwork or themed exhibits can be showcased. The openness of the library makes it feasible to monitor the internal and the external entrances and gives the opportunity for a public entrance that exemplifies the pride in the renovated facility and the students who matriculate there. For more information about the Cushing Academy Library please visit their library Website.

The S/L/A/M Collaborative is a 150-member architectural firm with offices in Atlanta, Boston, Syracuse and Connecticut. A fully integrated, multi-disciplinary firm, SLAM offers architecture, planning, interior design, landscape and site planning, structural engineering and construction services, and is qualified to take responsibility for building projects from design through construction. SLAM has been involved in the design of more than 35 libraries for educational clients and was recently ranked as one of Architect Magazine's Top 100 design firms in the U.S. To find out more about The S/L/A/M Collaborative, click here.