Is the Library’s Future Bookless?

Public library openings are not typically big news events, so what makes the BiblioTech in San Antonio so special? It’s the country’s first public library with no books. And the American Library Association says it could be the wave of the future.

With dozens of iMacs and iPads, rather than bookshelves, lining the aisles, the new BiblioTech in San Antonio is said to look more like an Apple Store than a public library. Patrons can still “check out” books through library-owned e-readers—BiblioTech purchased a 10,000-book digital collection—but the days of the Dewey Decimal System, even the electronic card catalog, are long gone.

That hipster, technologically advanced model may be what is leading to the early success of the first bookless library in the United States. It’s already on pace to surpass 100,000 visitors in the first year, and, according to a recent Associated Press report, it’s difficult to find an empty seat.

So, is this where public libraries are heading?

“Yeah, I think we’re going to see more of this,” said Carrie Russell, director of the Public Access to Information program at the American Library Association (ALA). “There is definite cost savings; it is a little more sexy and a little more interesting than what people think of as their regular public library. But I don’t think that it will be all or nothing—rather it’ll be a mixture of both digital and print resources in our libraries for some time to come.”

Russell noted that most public libraries are already at least “halfway digital,” offering access to technology, databases, and online books. The decision to take the next step—to leave behind printed books entirely—will likely be made on a local basis.

“A lot of it is based on the community support that they have,” she said. “In a lot of communities, a traditional view of the library is held, so they might not really want to change funding, because funding models are dependent on taxes. Other communities think that they can ultimately save cost by not being so print-centric. Libraries in some of your bigger, more urban communities have more opportunities to experiment just because of their size and their ability to move funds around.”

ALA is interested in learning more about the business model behind acquiring and lending out digital content, which could include movies and videos as well as books, Russell said. “The library won’t actually own any of these titles themselves, and that’s the biggest theoretical kind of movement from old to new—should libraries acquire materials that they don’t really own, and how long can that kind of model be sustained financially?”

A pay-per-use model or a subscription model similar to Hulu Plus or Netflix could be a solution, said Russell, but there’s a downside. “Privacy is always an issue when we go digital: Can we maintain patron privacy when we’re dealing with third-party vendors, etc.?

“It’s all really exciting,” she said. “It’s a fun time to be in public libraries, because there’s a lot of different things happening, all kinds of opportunities opening up.”

(via Bibliotech's Facebook page)

Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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