The era of the heavy schoolbag is almost at an end

The era of the heavy schoolbag is almost at an end. That’s according to one of my neighbourhood primary schools. In a letter home to parents, the headteacher noted that more and more pupils were bringing kindles and other electronic readers into class. He acknowledged that, yes, it was the future and to be commended – but could the kids please hold off just a little longer and stick to books for the moment.

Admittedly this is not your average primary (up to age 12) school – it’s a posh fee-paying private establishment. (It’s not where my pair go.)  But it looks like a harbinger of the future for all schools in the UK. The headteacher went on to point out that the school library was costly to maintain in terms of cash and space, and welcomed the inevitable transition from paper resources to electronic books.

We might not like it. I don’t like it.  But it’s coming.

British libraries are currently in the firing line because of public spending cuts. It’s painful.  I love libraries and I hate the threat to them. But the medium to long term argument against them is that technologically we won’t need them. All literature will be available electronically.

Sure, some older people find the pace of change too difficult – but that will gradually sort itself out. Some people cannot afford the tech kit to access e-books, but prices will fall – they’ll become the norm and more accessible.

So, OK? No. I fear the loss of the community focal point. I also fear that switching from paper to e-book will further deliterize or illiterize much of the population. Partly this is because of the enhancements that e-literature can offer – interactive diagrams, moving pictures, and audio. Why dwell on the immobile text when you can skip to the all singing and dancing parts? Take it a step further – why read at all, when you can watch. TV already beats reading for many – it’s passive, it’s easier. When books adopt televisuality, it’ll be an admission that they can’t beat them, so they’re joining them instead.

It’s already happening. Why struggle through complicated technical instructions when you can watch a video instead? My son drums along with an instructor on YouTube. I didn’t read the manual when my new phone arrived. There was no manual. Again, I learned how to use it from YouTube. In both these cases the new way is probably better.

So what’ll we do with the obsolete  books? Burn them? Fahrenheit 451. Send them to developing countries?

KwaMathanda High School, Umlazi, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa - I took pics to show the publishers who donated books that they had really been delivered.

I once took a shipment of (new) books to a South African township school. (Thanks to the publishers Xpress, Heinemann Junior African Writers Series and BBC World for supporting me in that.) But perhaps in future developing countries will prefer to skip accepting our discards and jump straight to the next technological level – a bit like many African countries are not bothering with landline phones and going straight to mobile.

Does it matter? Paper is bulky, takes up a lot of room to manufacture. But it works. Will future e-reading devices leave us dependent on rare minerals from central Africa or China?

Hearing about the letter home from that school felt like one of those pivotal moments. Sometime in the near future there’ll be a newspaper report marking the first school to actually take this step. At least it’ll be good for the spines of future schoolchildren.

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “The era of the heavy schoolbag is almost at an end

  1. TaylorGooderham

    I’m in school right now, and I’m against digitizing the books. Although it’s a good idea for textbooks (they can be updated frequently), for novels and such it would be bad. I know that most people would probably have games on their e-book readers instead of actually reading during our designated reading time. As well, what happens when the battery runs out? Overall, it just seems like a bad idea.

  2. Hi, great post. I remember our old book bags, dark heavy green, with long thick yellow straps which acted as a draw string; so all eleven year olds I knew developed widows humps lugging their books back and forth to school. We also used these book bags to put the cat/cats in, heads stickup to go to Dr. Bruce’s Animal Farm in Dedham, Massachusetts for their vet care; multiple are the uses… I lived in Russia, both in Dnepropetrovsk, and in Minsk. In Dneper (whole name too difficult to pronounce) there was a small municipal library with books in english. because i was american (ugh, status) i was free to look among the stacks and read the books in english, which I might add, helped me immensely as i was at the baby level of speaking Russian.
    In minsk, you couldn’t get a card, as in most libraries, the masses are kept from the library – (horrible), but if you could get a card, you looked at the index and found your book, submitted it to a librarian, sat in a certain room, and the book was brought to you. You read it and returned it. thus, a record of your readings were on file. They allowed me to take books home (yes, elitism I know), but I have written about this in my book You Carry the Heavy Stuff, so hopefully that gives voice to those who cannot speak. At any rate, there’s the relationship to the page, the highbacked chair one can snuggle into, fold up one’s legs, and enter another world by reading. Too much viewing I think does something to us brain wise, but not sure.
    at any rate, i love your blog!

    • blackwatertown

      That’s just fascinating to hear about. I almost spent a winter working in Yekaterinburg. Lucky escape not to I think.

  3. I have been reading about this , too — as well as getting pressured about offering digital books (at greatly reduced prices) to my students. I worry about how quickly the technology changes. Today’s kindle will be in the dump tomorrow for tomorrow Kindle XL. People think e-readers are kinder and gentler to the environment, but I think a person would have to read an awful lot of (biodegradable) books in order to make up for all the wires and plastic and batteries that will make their way into our landfills.

    But you are right. It is coming. And fast.

  4. Barbara Rodgers

    I have mixed feelings about this. I have a very large personal library, with bookshelves in every room in my house, and in the basement, too. There are books piled on the stairs. I love to be surrounded by books and frequent used book stores on a regular basis. But, I just got a Kindle and I LOVE it! These are two of my reasons:

    Lately, my middle aged eyes are getting very persnickety and every time I think I have the right prescription for reading glasses they only work for a month or two. With the Kindle I can adjust the print size of each book, which makes reading without glasses or without squinting a breeze.

    It costs time and gas money to go to the library, which, more often than not, does not have the book I’m looking to borrow. I have to request the book from inter-library loan and go home and wait for it to arrive, and then make another trip to the library. It is so much pleasure to search for a book online and then have it on my Kindle in a minute or two. (I know, I’m an American and demanding instant gratification is a national character trait.)

    I still remember the day, I don’t know how many years ago, when I walked into our town library and discovered, to my shock and dismay, that the card catalog was gone! Vanished without a trace! Now we use the computer to find out what books are available, and we can even use it online from home. I am nostalgic about the card catalog, but now it’s a thing of the past…

    I think libraries are evolving into community centers where you can meet for a book club discussion, borrow museum passes and DVDs for free, display artwork, have story-time, and read your Kindle in a quiet place with perhaps, the resident cat snuggled up on your lap. 🙂

  5. I have to admit that I haven’t been to a library for years but in terms of school books, the Kindle, Nook etc. are so much cheaper than text books. Our average high school text books start at about $40 and when you buy a number of them it’s a huge cost. Electronic books are cheap. Then I only got the internet years ago because my daughters biology text was all online! I guess we might be saving a few little spines without the heavy bags.

  6. This trend has been in USA schools for some time especially for college bound courses in high school. The CD Rom contains practice tests, study guides, short movies and all kinds of enriching material beside text. Because of the politics of inclusiveness books are now more than 1,200 pages, weigh 9 pounds and cost $80. Carrying 6 or 8 CD Roms instead makes sense. It also gives industrious students ability to advance independent of teacher. Big problem here is that Christian Fundamentalists are very active in demanding evolutionary theories be deleted and that progressive medical advance or alternative live styles be deleted also. Since there are 50 states the manufacturer may have to design 50 different CD’s to satisfy particular standards. Usage will probably expand anyway and more and more credited course are available each year. The next generation will miss curling up in bed with a good book, it’s smell, its feel, its tangibility.

  7. great post but I am all for books when it comes to telling a story to my 1 year old niece or reading Lolita! or…a Gray’s Anatomy for a medical student…yeah I can think of just a few examples..:)

  8. I love this article. The era of the heavy schoolbag is almost at an end. I dunno.

    Granddaughter Brittany started Kindergarten this year. Her backpack was so big, she complained of the weight.

    My surprise was the headset for the computer.

    Yes, it’s the age of technology, but I agree with Carl. Nothing takes the place of curling up with a good book.

  9. I like the tactile feel of a book. I love thumbing the pages, and even the scent of a new book. I just don’t know how the experience would translate to a Kindle, or similar device. Admittedly, it’s something I haven’t tried yet. I can see there might be certain advantages the an e-reader offers over the printed book, and the onward march of technology will eventually settle the issue regardless of my personal feelings. But thinking back to my younger days, an offer to ‘carry your books?’ extended to a young lady seems so much more meaningful than the future possibility of ‘carry your Kindle?’.

  10. blackwatertown

    @ Taylor, Baino & Carl – I suppose I wouldn’t mind so much with school text e-books. Might keep them more up to date. Not so heavy either.
    @ Renée – Good point. Paper books still haven’t become obsolete after hundreds of years. How long till the kindle gets binned?
    @ Barbara – Yay – I love the sound of your book-filled home, and the local library sounds cosy too. As for not always finding exactly what you were looking for – doesn’t that permit the delicious serendipity when you find something you didn’t know you wanted. Well said about the adjustable text size on kindles etc – I hadn’t thought of that.
    @ Ameya – Yes, nothing beats a book for bedtime stories – unless it’s a story without any visual aid – leaving it all to the storyteller and the listener’s imagination.
    @ Maxi – that’s funny. Just when we thought that at least schoolbags would be getting lighter, they come up with a sneaky new way to keep them packed.
    @ Exile – that’s your artistic soul finding a romantic angle to this story.
    Thanks all.

  11. Osvaldo Golden

    Good blog! Well written.
    I’ve subscribed to your feed.

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