Book Reviews

A future without books?

BIGbibliotechThe good citizens of a community in San Antonio, Texas might have beamed with anticipated pleasure when the city fathers announced they were getting a new, purpose- built library.

It was big news for a community that doesn’t have a bookstore and has never had a library to call its own.

Not unreasonably, many of its residents expected that part of the $1.5M cost would go a long way to paying for a few books. Imagine their surprise to learn that theirs will be the first bookless and paperless public library across the whole of North America.

Many libraries around the world are switching funding from the purchase of paper copies of books, to  buying digital versions. Just last year Imperial College in London announced that over 98% of its journal collections were digital, and that it had stopped buying print textbooks. Other academic institutions have experimented with this approach, particularly in their science and technology faculties.

But the new BiblioTech facility in Texas will be the world’s paperless public library.  Readers will visit the Apple-inspired building to download e-books directly onto tablets, smart phones, PCs and e-readers from an initial collection of around 10,000 titles. If they don’t have their own devices, they’ll be able to borrow one apparently.

The county commissioners and officials are excited about their new baby, seeing it as the first step in a much bigger project that will see similar facilities open in other parts of the state. “We are trailblazing,” said the county’s top elected official, County Judge Nelson Wolff. “…the world is changing and this is the best, most effective way to bring services to our community.”

Traditionalists (and I hold my hand up to being one of them) might react with rolling eyes to such comments. The first time I saw this picture I imagined that using it would be an antiseptic, soulless experience completely alien to  the musty, dusty but oh so atmospheric libraries of my formative reading years. Even now, as libraries have modernised and refurbished, I still can’t imagine getting the same thrill from selecting a book from an on line catalogue rather than taking it down from the shelf and browsing a few pages before deciding if it’s for me. Orange walls and green bar stools don’t make the experience any more pleasurable. If they were going to spend a few million dollars, couldn’t they have done something inventive and pleasurable.

Like this new library in Maranello, Italy which seems to float in water.

Maranello Italy

Or this one in Mexico city where the architects designed a concrete and glass frame around the front of an old house

Mexico city

But once the initial reaction wore off, I began to think that maybe these good burghers of Buxton county are not only smarter than I gave them credit for, they could be considered community heroes. Woolf is a personal fan of the printed book — he owns about 1,000 first editions though not an electronic reader. “I am a guy who likes that physical book in his hand,” Mr. Wolff said. “But I also realize I am a bit of a fossil.”

Faced with rapidly growing populations in  suburbs and satellite towns outside the San Antonio city limits he knew the residents of these areas wanted more services. But no-one would be happy to see their local taxes escalate to pay for them. His plan not only gets people access to a library for the first time, he’s doing it at at a significantly lower cost than the traditional approach.

And he’s given the new facility a very strong community education focus through partnerships with local schools, digital literacy courses and late opening hours.

The new BiblioTech site is due to open later this summer. Whether it will get the positive reaction the officials are hoping for, therefore remains to be seen. There was a public outcry in Newport Beach, California in 2011 when residents learned their city was planning a bookless library. Eventually the city fathers backed away from the plan. Will Buxton become a failed experiment or will convenience and the preferences of a new generation of readers prevail?

One comment from a local father could hold the key.

I’m not likely to use a library containing only e-books, but my kids probably will. I really hate those little screens. But my teenage kids—that is the only way they want to read now.”


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

9 thoughts on “A future without books?

  • **Slobber** Wherever did you come across the library with a TREE in it. Oh I love it.

    The thought of a paperless library may seem depressing to most bookworms but, in communities where people do not have access to any kind of service full stop, it is certainly a way forward. Where more affluent or popular areas can really harness traditional libraries in conjunction with new technologies, surely getting people to read anything at all is the first step, particularly in more marginalised communities…(not speaking about San Antonio in particular as I’ve never been clearly!)

  • severalfourmany

    I was considering a move to San Antonio. Having lived in Boston (a city of libraries if there ever was one) for a decade and a half I can’t imagine living in a community with libraries and bookstores. The “paperless” library of San Antonio probably doesn’t need a building to distribute their books, just servers. Seems an odd use of tax money to build an almost unnecessary building. Also, this “paperless” library will mainly serve affluent whites and most likely underserve their large hispanic population, many of which don’t have ready access to tablets and e-readers.

    Of course it’s nice to think about the future. But better to think clearly about the future.

    • I couldn’t work out why they needed a building if everything was downloaded electronically, either. Unless it was to hand out the rental e-readers to the people who don’t have them

  • I love the other libraries you feature – they are truly gorgeous. My son is 18 and very much of the modern generation – a huge fan of computer games and all set for a while to do a degree in computing (he changed his mind last autumn in favour of chemistry). But when I offered him a ereader he looked at me most scornfully and said that if he wanted to read a book, he’d pick up a book. Just because you could put it on a screen didn’t mean you had to. You could have knocked me down with a feather! I mention this, just to counteract the view that the next generation is technology-crazy. Because they’ve grown up with it, they are far more picky and sceptical, I think. It’s our generation that thinks it’s the second coming.

    • Hooray for people like your son. Its a good reminder to me not to stereotype and generalise…

  • I’m not sure how this will work out. As a librarian, I’ve noticed that it’s difficult to go entirely digital, largely because there are many important resources that people need where an electronic version is not available. I’m also kind of curious about the cost factor. Perhaps it’s cheaper to buy electronic subscriptions than to buy a whole library’s worth of books from scratch, but in terms of yearly costs, print still seems cheaper.

    • One of our librarians said that print books get such a bashing from being moved around on the shelves a lot that they have to regularly buy new editions of the very popular ones, especially the paperbacks But e versions don’t suffer from that so the ‘shelf life’ might be longer

      • It really depends on how much traffic a library gets and how much usage a site license covers. I work in a small library, so there isn’t enough usage to destroy most print books, even the more popular paperbacks. The biggest loss of books comes from people leaving them places, but even then, they have a tendency to find their way home.

        • You must have had some moments when a reader returns a book with an imaginative reason for it being overdue. Would be good to capture these in a book …

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