Paperless public libraries switch to digital
By Bill Hicks
The phrase “bookless libraries” arrives with a dull, oxymoronic thud, enough to get the blood of any bibliophile boiling.
It’s the sort of thud made in the 1980s by doomed reports promising a “paperless office”. Anyone who remembers that much-mocked slogan might well shrug off this latest idea as overheated punditry.
Or perhaps they should think again, as the world’s first completely paperless public library is scheduled to open this summer in Bexar County, Texas, in the United States.
Bexar County’s so-called BiblioTech is a low-cost project with big ambitions. Its first branch will be in a relatively poor district on the city of San Antonio’s South Side.
It will have 100 e-readers on loan, and dozens of screens where the public will be able to browse, study, and learn digital skills. However it’s likely most users will access BiblioTech’s initial holding of 10,000 digital titles from the comfort of their homes, way out in the Texas hinterland.
It will be a truly bookless library – although that is not a phrase much to the liking of BiblioTech’s project co-ordinator, Laura Cole. She prefers the description “digital library” – after all, there will be books there, but in digital form.
‘Not even a bookstore…’
“For us this was just an obvious solution to a growing problem,” she says.
That problem was “explosive” population growth around San Antonio, in suburbs and satellite towns way outside the city limits.
“We’ve had to look to how we provide services to these unincorporated areas,” she said.
“While the city does a beautiful job in providing public libraries, these can only easily be used by people living there”.
San Antonio’s book-rich public libraries will be unaffected by the project.
Bexar County, by contrast, never had a public library service. “I think we’re at an advantage there,” Ms Cole said. “They’ve never had a library with books – there’s not even a bookstore here.”
This sets it apart from earlier bookless library experiments at Newport Beach, California, and Tucson, Arizona – which both reverted to offering real as well as e-books, by public demand.
As well as offering digital books to 1.7m people, the $1.5m BiblioTech project has a big community education remit. It will partner with local schools and run digital literacy courses and will stay open late into the evenings.
The project’s instigator, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, sees it as a pilot for a county-wide scheme. Other sources of funding will be sought to build up the services.
Interestingly, Judge Wolff is a keen collector of first editions, the bibliophile ushering in the bookless future: “But the world is changing and this is the best, most effective way to bring services to our community.”
The world is changing and this is the best, most effective way to bring services to our community”
End Quote Nelson Wolff Bexar County
Judge Wolff has cited Apple founder Steve Jobs as inspiration for the BiblioTech.
But the project has also gained impetus from the success of the University of Texas San Antonio (UTSA) bookless engineering school library which opened three years ago, the first paperless academic library. UTSA’s director of libraries Dr Krisellen Maloney has worked with the BiblioTech team and sits on its advisory board.
Outside Texas, bookless libraries have also made most ground in the academic sector, with the swiftest change in science, maths and engineering libraries.
The first such facility in the UK is likely to be at Imperial College, London, which last year announced that over 98% of its journal collections were digital, and that it had stopped buying print textbooks.
Even so, it was still paying around £4m per year in subscriptions to publishers, even after concerted efforts to negotiate better digital deals for universities.
It’s clear that bookless libraries are not a cheaper option for cash strapped colleges and local authorities. Producing digital versions of text books can be even more costly, given that users will expect more regular updating and interactive features.
There are some libraries which will never go bookless, because their collections contain books that are important historical artefacts in themselves.
Although many of these rare texts are being digitised under schemes such as that run by Google, these books as physical objects remain essential resources for researchers.
Christopher Platt, director of collections and circulation at the New York Public Library (NYPL), argued that accessing a digital version of a book was sometimes not enough.
“People travel from all over the world to our library, not just to access an item, but to touch it and feel it to get a sense of it that speaks to the overall importance of the work,” he said. “This is not sentimentality, it’s an important fact.”
However the NYPL is also embracing the digital world with enthusiasm and is deeply committed to offering digital material.
Last year the library made 880,000 e-book loans – a fivefold increase over 2008, Mr Platt said. The library has 91 branches around the city, he added: “If you look at e-book loans as a virtual branch, it would regularly be number two or three in terms of monthly usage.”
On the shelf
Contrary to some reports, the NYPL is not reducing its holdings of books – although some 1.5 million books in the stacks of its famous Central Library building on 42nd Street in Manhattan will be relocated in underground vaults as part of a refurbishment scheme beginning this year.
The space will be used to create a “spectacular” new public library , but it will not be bookless. “In fact, far more books will be visible than ever in the past,” Mr Platt said.
But bookless does not mean cheap. Publishers were charging libraries up to five times the normal hardback price for an e-book of a popular title, he said. And certain types of book – illustrated children’s titles, how-to manuals – simply did not work as well as e-books, especially when some library e-readers were still text-only.
This was just one of many reasons, he felt, that bookless libraries would not be sweeping the board just yet.
A major issue was to obtain guarantees of a consistently good reader experience across all platforms and technologies – something which NYPL, along with 200 other big libraries across north America, and increasingly elsewhere, is working towards in a new coalition, readersfirst.org.
In the UK, however, the major issue was not so much bookless libraries but library-less boroughs. Authors have been particularly active in campaigns to resist funding cuts that are leading to public library closures.
Children’s author Alan Gibbons is a passionate believer in the role of libraries, especially school libraries, but he’s also a keen user of the panoply of “e” and “i” prefixed devices.
But he has misgivings about the notion of a bookless library. “We have to manage the change intelligently. The danger is that reading becomes utterly atomised”. Otherwise there could be the “obliteration of minority and mid-list authors”.
He argues that the library space and the librarian are crucial elements. Books could be replaced by e-readers, but virtual space could not replace library buildings. “The only issue for me is how new readers are made, and I don’t see that happening in social networks.”
Working in international schools in China and Thailand, Mr Gibbons noted that even in the most elite schools where very child was given an iPad, the school library, stocked with real books, was seen as an essential resource.
Christopher Platt at New York Public Library has another take on the bookless future: “It’s still early game. We’ve been 100 years getting the print stuff right, so it could be a while before we get the e-stuff right.”
Do you think a library is still a library without printed books? What would be lost with an all digital library instead of books on bookshelves?
I work in a library. I love books. I have two full bookshelves at home and can’t imagine being without them. Browsing books, flicking through pages, is a pleasure, pressing a few buttons and the odd click is just not the same!
Della, West Sussex
An all digital library would miss the distinctive smell of old paper. With paperless books you would also, perhaps for the better, miss the history of the particular book and its users. The odd scribble here, the page corner folded there.
The bookless library in Texas will have 100 ebook readers. So a maximum of 100 people will be able to read its books at any one time, unless they own a computer and an internet connection in their own home. That appears to be more limited than existing “paper libraries”. It would seem to be a library for those who have financial resources to afford internet connectivity and associated equipment, and excludes the poorer members of society. This seems to be at odds with the earlier vision of public libraries, that intended to bring books and other information resources to a wider audience, particularly those on lower incomes who could otherwise not afford to buy the books and newspapers themselves. I’d suggest this is a regressive step, socially speaking.
Mark, Milton Keynes
I have worked in libraries for 15 years and I think people should think less about libraries as buildings in which to house books and more as places to access and disseminate information and knowledge. To me, if you want hard copy, paper books you should visit a book shop or plan a trip to an archive. Libraries have always battled with space and storage issues and a paperless library would allow users to access information quickly at their convenience. Library users with additional needs can also have their digital materials ‘tailored’ to suit their own requirements e.g. large print, audio (spoken word), translation etc. I find the prospect an exciting one and more inclusive for the population as a whole.
You need ebooks and paper in equal quantities. My kindle doesn’t smell the same as my real books.
Having lived in the Midwestern US for a decade, this strikes me as a great idea. It sounds as though users will be able to check out digital books over the Internet, rather than driving a distance to the library. We enjoy that convenience in Baltimore. For the vast distances of North America though, it will make life in the hinterlands that much more exciting. I could see it helping a schoolchild in Orkney or the Shetlands in the same way, for example.
Jim, Baltimore, US
I think a digital library is an exciting idea but should exist as an option alongside the paper library. The digital space is full of distractions, not too conducive to study. It requires a greater level of self control.
Solomon, Lagos, Nigeria
As a librarian I would be interested in the Texans’ licensing arrangements for accessing e-books. This is a real stumbling block where publishers want to limit the number of ‘loans’ of an e-title, or the length of time e-access to a title will be permitted, while librarians think in terms of making items available as a service.
I think it won’t be the same, first because of the smell of the books but what can happen if there is not electricity. Maybe just in develop countries this can happen faster but in third world countries it will take longer. Maybe buildings for libraries can disappear because of portability, nowadays young people prefer technology and you are able to carry it wherever you go.
Delia, Chiclayo, Peru
I don’t care which sensory experience I get, paper or ebook. I do both. However, I really enjoy reading non-bestselling novels published between 1920 and 1970, as they give a great flavor of the times. Older non-fiction can be interesting, too. Most of these books will never be digitized! I’ve explored a couple of dozen libraries within 40 miles of my house and found those who keep more older books on the shelves. I want them to remain
Nancy, Portland, Oregon, US
I live in Bexar County and must admit it took about three years of residence to locate (physically!) my local library. While I do not live in the same part of the county as the BiblioTech, I am delighted that the architects hope to branch the e-library system out to the rest of the County. I look forward to the day I will be able to go to the library without ever leaving home!
Mai, San Antonio, Texas
As a technophile, I think there’s a huge amount of potential for e-books to make reading a far more convenient activity for just about everybody, especially with a new generation for whom this technology is already going to be fairly widespread. I’m entirely certain there’s going to be change eventually (my own university is putting more emphasis on digitised textbooks), but it’s going to be a gradual and experimental process. As a bibliophile, I still think books aren’t going to die out for a long long time, and there’s no hurry for libraries to chuck out the dead tree pulp editions in an attempt to ‘modernise’ themselves, especially given that plenty of people enjoy the feel of having a solid copy in your hands (although having tried an e-reader, they’re remarkably fun to use). As someone who’s also aware of the long term impact of this, I feel apprehensive both about the costs charged by publishing firms and the impact this will have on the fairly large portion of the population who just won’t have access to e-readers to begin with, let alone those who are too young to have one and rely on trips to the library to get their fix.
: As an addition to paper libraries, helping to provide access where otherwise access is limited, this is a good idea. But the risk is that digital libraries completely replace paper libraries – and this misses one of the major elements of the library service, which is to provide not only information, but also discussion and community. Working as a community librarian you soon learn that people frequent libraries as much for company and support as to access knowledge and information. Reducing our understanding of ‘information’ to digital resources, rather than local knowledge, guidance on suitable authors and sources of information etc, is a step towards isolation. This also risks restricting access for the large proportion of library users who are elderly and in many cases less computer literate.
No, a library is not a library without printed books. Moreover, libraries are not book depositories and the invention of e-readers does not alter the need for a public space for reading, culture and edification. If you think the sole purpose of libraries is book distribution then be prepared for these faddish digital libraries to be physically dismantled or sold off and replaced by virtual (electronic-only) libraries. Then we can all sit at home downloading electronic texts and never have to look at another human being outside of working hours. What joy!
James, Galway, Ireland
Often when browsing my local library’s shelves in search of a particular work, my eye has been caught by something completely different close by, which has encouraged me to read different authors and even genres, most of which have proved very enjoyable. This kind of serendipity would by more difficult when ordering E-books. Even the definition of the word is a place where books were kept.
While I, like others, feel horrified at the loss of the sensory experience of reading a book (the weight of a book in the hands…the sound of the pages turning…being able to physically see how far through the book you are…), I can also see how this distaste compares to the distaste felt by vinyl lovers towards MP3s. They too have lost cover art and a sensory experience if they upgrade to this new technology. As I too am now buying fewer CDs in favour of digital music, who knows? Maybe we’ll all also come round to the idea of digital books instead of physical ones – and in turn a digital library.