BookerTalk

A future without books?

The 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.

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

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.”

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