Imagine walking into a public library and seeing computer stations, meeting rooms for events and workshops, and friendly librarians ready to help.
But one thing is missing: Books.
Welcome to Texas’ Bibliotech, the country’s first all-digital, i.e. bookless, public library.
According to an Associated Press story by Paul J. Weber (“Texas library offers glimpse of bookless future”), the $2.3 million library in Bexar County near San Antonio opened in the fall of 2013 and has found great success. It is on track to have over 100,000 visitors in the first year, and at least half of the library’s e-reader devices are checked out at all times.
Bibliotech’s website lists benefits of the free membership as access to their digital collection (e-books, audio books, software training software, and more), Wi-Fi access, classes, programs, computer, laptop and tablet access, e-readers to check out and meeting space. The library has 600 e-readers available for checkout, 200 pre-loaded e-readers for children, and 48 computer stations, 10 laptops and 40 tablets available for use within the building. Library members can select up to five e-books, audio books or other digital media to be loaded on to an e-reader, which can then be checked-out for 14 days.
“I thought it was interesting,” said Ed Garcia, director of Cranston Public Library, when asked about the new format. “I think digital content is part of the future.”
Although Garcia knows embracing technology and digital content is necessary, he is not convinced that all-digital libraries will become the standard, partly because of the public being unable, or unwilling, to embrace new technologies, but also because of the competition between the e-reader manufacturers.
To explain, Garcia referenced Ocean State Libraries E-Zone, which allows Rhode Island library cardholders to borrow digital titles from the library to read on their personal devices. Certain file formats will only work on certain devices; for example, Adobe ePub files are readable on a Barnes & Noble Nook, but not on Amazon’s Kindle.
“No one has been able to get a standard format across the board,” said Garcia.
The Cranston Public Library does have a successful e-reader lending program. They have 11 Nooks and one Kindle. Garcia explained they pre-loaded the devices with books of specific genres. For example, there is a sci-fi Nook and a current bestsellers Nook. The Kindle features shorter novellas written by popular authors such as Stephen King, which are only available through Amazon. New titles are added, but right now the library has a total of 1,500 e-books through the 12 devices; patrons are also able to access the E-Zone and select a book from that to be put on the e-reader they borrow.
While he doesn’t believe physical books will be removed from libraries anytime soon, Garcia sees music and film headed that way.
“More and more music and film streaming will lessen that presence within libraries,” explained Garcia. “We’ve already seen library vendors with streaming devices.”
Garcia said he has been looking into purchasing Roku devices to be lent out, similar to the library’s current e-reader program. Roku devices connect to a streaming service such as Netflix, and then connect to a TV so it can be watched on the larger screen.
Although he is unsure the all-digital library will become the norm, Garcia does see some good in it.
“I think part of it’s a good thing because it shows people the possibilities of technology,” he said.
On the other hand, he added that there is a divide between wanting to provide this technology to people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it and forcing technology on people who don’t want it by eliminating print materials.
While Bibliotech is the first all-digital public library, the move to all-digital libraries on college campuses has been happening over the years. However, David Maslyn, library director at the University of Rhode Island, believes any library needs both technology and print materials to survive.
“I would say they are moving too quickly with unproven technology, both in the sense of durability and the ease of use,” said Maslyn when asked about his reaction to Bibliotech. “If the electricity goes out at the library, you can’t do anything! You can pick up a book anytime.”
The URI Library does loan out laptops to students for use within the facility, but Maslyn says the key is to have patrons “decide the best way to access the information they want.”
Maslyn did say fewer books are being purchased for the library with more and more resources being purchased in electronic formats. That being said, not all resources within a college library may be available digitally, especially those of a historic nature.
“In a college library, I would say you do need physical books as well,” said Maslyn.
It is possible that the demographics of Bexar County have played a role in Bibliotech’s success. According to the AP story, San Antonio is ranked 60th in literacy, the community had previously argued about the lack of bookstores in the early 2000s, and most families do not have personal Wi-Fi in their homes. Bibliotech is the county’s only library, so if residents are looking for books or access to technology, there is not another option.
Communities in California and Arizona previously tried to have all-digital libraries, but public outcry led them to bring in books.
When asked if he could ever see one of the Cranston branches becoming completely digital, Garcia said he wasn’t opposed to looking at it if the funding and interest were there.
“We would take a look at it if I thought it was something the public would be interested in,” he said.
For now, Garcia is looking to potentially add more e-readers or tablets to the lending program, improving the broadband systems within the various branches and continuing to update Wi-Fi at the various branches. He added that the library is always looking to add new technology, such as the 3D printer and roaming digital media lab. That lab features four Mac Books and a number of digital cameras, which are currently being used for a teen movie making class.
“We really try to keep an eye on new trends, new technology,” said Garcia. “We want to look to the future, but not forget the basics.”
The AP story also makes mention of the economic advantage of going digital. Although Bibliotech’s 10,000-title digital collection cost the same as physical books, the county saved millions on the building because it did not need to accommodate the weight and size of physical books.