A Bookless Library Opens in San Antonio

The all-digital space – stocked with 10,000 e-books and 500 e-readers –resembles an Apple store. But is that really a library?

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Courtesy Bexar County Government

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff isn’t the man you’d imagine as the visionary for the nation’s first all-digital public library.

The former San Antonio mayor doesn’t own an e-reader (“I refuse to read the e-book!” he says) and for years has collected first editions of modern novels (in print, mind you). Back in the 1990s, Wolff helped spearhead San Antonio’s 240,000 square-foot, six-story, $50 million central public library, a building the city is now struggling to figure out what to do with. Today, Wolff says he would’ve avoided building such a large facility.

“Who would’ve thought 20 years ago we’d be where we are today?” he says.

(MORE:  New Digital Library Launches: Internet + Ancient Library of Alexandria)

On Saturday, Bexar County Digital Library – a $2.4 million, 4,000-square-foot space, also known as BiblioTech and located on the south side of San Antonio – opens to the public. The library, built with $1.9 million in county tax money and $500,000 in private donations, looks like an orange-hued Apple store and is stocked with 10,000 e-books, 500 e-readers, 48 computers, and 20 iPads and laptops. It has a children’s area, study rooms and a Starbucks-esque café. Most importantly, it will have no printed material.

This isn’t the first time a public library has attempted to go bookless. In 2002, the Tucson-Pima Public Library system in Arizona opened a branch without books. But after just a few years, the library phased in printed materials. Its patrons demanded them.

“I don’t think people could really envision a library without any books in it,” says Susan Husband, the Santa Rosa Branch Library’s manager.

The idea of the bookless library no longer seems so daring considering our drift away from print and toward all things digital. At the end of 2012, 23% of Americans age 16 and older read e-books, up from 16% the year before, while the proportion of Americans who read a printed book fell from 72% to 67%, according to the Pew Research Center. But an all-digital library also raises a very basic question: is a library without books really a library?

“The library is no longer the place where you walk in and the thing you pay most attention to is the book collection,” says American Library Association President Maureen Sullivan. “It’s now a place where when you walk in, you’re immediately attuned to the variety of ways that people are making use of that space.”

Around the country, a number of public libraries have undergone radical transformations to cater to the needs of its patrons, often by moving and consolidating its book collections to make way for collaborative, digital spaces that can easily adapt to emerging technologies.

(MORE: The Future of Libraries: Short on Books, Long on Tech)

Chicago Public Library’s YOUmedia offers space for teens to create digital content like podcasts and video games. The District of Columbia Public Library system and the Columbus Metropolitan Library System in Ohio are renovating many of their locations to create all-digital areas and open spaces for patrons to work together. Arizona State University and the Scottsdale Public Library system are even collaborating to attract small businesses and entrepreneurs to work in libraries across the state.

While many are transforming into digital, collaborative hubs, libraries are also increasingly trying to serve low-income Americans, especially since the recession. In New York City, 40 of the 62 Queens Libraries have been renovated in part to increase space for jobseekers.

“You more or less can’t find a job today unless you can get on a computer,” says Queens Library President Tom Galante. “And a huge percentage of the population here doesn’t have access to a computer at home.”

When Galante first started working at the Queens library 26 years ago, 80% of the library’s focus was on loaning materials. Today, about 30% is lending while 70% is focused on programs and services like resume writing, job search tips and language classes. Last year, the library enrolled 6,000 New Yorkers in its ESL classes, and according to the ALA, public libraries offer an average of one program a day for every library system in the U.S.

(MORE: Is a Bookless Library Still a Library?)

But as the depressed economy brought more traffic into public libraries across the U.S., funding went in the opposite direction. From 2000 to 2010, physical visits to libraries increased by 32.7%, partly due to the influx of patrons during the recession, but overall funding for public libraries has decreased every year since then. In 2013, 37% of state libraries saw a dip in state funding, forcing libraries in 30 states to cut their hours.

Funding remains a constant concern for libraries, but a more short-term obstacle is the ongoing battle with publishers over e-book access. Going digital doesn’t solve any of the issues over lack of funds because for the last several years, the so-called Big Six publishers have either been unwilling to sell e-books to libraries or have jacked up their prices, making it virtually impossible for many libraries to carry e-book bestsellers. Publishers are worried about selling a commodity that will never need replaced, and they argue that it’s much easier for e-books to be shared among multiple library branches. In turn, librarians are increasingly bypassing the Big Six altogether and turning to independent and self-published e-books at a much lower cost.

Bypassing the big publishers, however, is risky. If libraries don’t carry the e-books patrons are looking for, they may be disinclined to use the library altogether.

But Wolff isn’t too worried about that right now. His $1.2 million annual budget will allow him to buy 10,000 additional e-books a year, and he’s decided to pay a premium for many of the e-books he’s stocked. And he’s confident that over time, libraries and publishers will figure out an agreement that furthers both of their interests. “As this develops, prices are going to go down,” he says. Wolff also hopes BiblioTech will bridge a digital divide in the area. According to a survey by ESRI, a geospatial analysis company, at least a third of Texans in Bexar County don’t have an Internet connection in their homes.

Still, these bold, bookless moves haven’t persuaded Wolff to get an e-reader for himself. But now, he’s got options. “I don’t know how much longer I can hold out,” he says. “But I think they’re going to let me borrow one from the library.”

43 comments
artmaker43
artmaker43

The libraries are being bamboozled.  Check out the URLs to see the ripoff ebook pricing structure for libraries:


http: // techcrunch dot com / 2013/10/13 / the-end-of-the-library/

http: // www dot wired dot com / opinion / 2013/10 / how-ebook-pricing-hurts-us-in-more-ways-than-you-think/

 They would be much better off to just buy ONLY physical copies from Amazon and refuse to participate with digital books at all. Someone is getting one hell of a kickback!


minlin9
minlin9

I'm concerned about people who (gasp!) can't afford an ebook reader, but who can borrow FREE (to them) books at a library.  I know some of these people.   Seems more than selfish to keep them from reading, either for entertainment or to actually find information. 

tmc8080
tmc8080

Libraries are having a bit of a digital divide.. cut hours and the limited digital materials available are a problem. This used to be a place you could spend a few hours, but with many libraries cutting WEEKEND hours.. when do you have the time to visit? 

DeanDay
DeanDay

“A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a digital, collaborative hub." - Shelby Foote

silversj
silversj

One other thing I wish people would understand - a library isn't just about the books or the format of the information it offers. A library is a shared space where people can come together to interact, discuss and disseminate ideas and information. A library is about the community in which it's placed. So if you have a community that is very forward thinking and that has embraced ebooks and what they have to offer, then a BiblioTech might be just what they need. Conversely, if you have a community that is more focused on, say, the arts and art education, you may find a space that contains not only books about art history, but rooms that can be reserved for painting, photography, and metal-working because that is what that community needs and wants.

silversj
silversj

@meerkat218

I take great offense to the remark that the "current younger generation of librarians is a joke." First, that sentence is not grammatically correct, and second, I am a younger generation librarian.

I, and many of my library school peers, have a great respect for the physical books. If you took a poll, you might actually be surprised to find how many of us prefer the physical printed book. However, we understand that technology advances, that digital books and e-readers are the next wave. Before the printed book we had oral histories and storytelling - and while that format of recording events has fallen by the wayside it is not extinct. Just as the transition to the digital world is being made, the print book will not become extinct, it will continue to have its place.

So say what you will, but know that librarianship, libraries, and librarians are much more than they seem on the surface. What was that famous quote? "Don't judge a book by its cover."

SmoothEdward1
SmoothEdward1

I never have to worry about charging my real book.

stlriver
stlriver

one good reason i can see for a county (or village or city) to open a library (of whatever form) as opposed to making it a branch of the larger system in the area...is that they get to choose the hours of the facility. 

BethGraham
BethGraham

The City of San Antonio is NOT "trying to figure out what to do with the Central Library." Who told you that? The Central Library is a vital, active community space, with a jobs and small business center, a busy (and newly upgraded) teen center, an equally busy children's area, a gallery showcasing local artists, and, oh, yes, BOOKS. Books which are still in great demand, in all their formats, along with newspapers, magazines, music, and computers. The San Antonio Public Library has been offering e-Books for years.

Additionally, the new "Bibliotech" is NOT part of the San Antonio Public Library system. It is a free-standing separate operation created by Bexar County (why the county chose not to cooperate with the 100-year-old-plus San Antonio Public Library in creating the "Bibliotech" is an interesting question.) It will require prospective users to obtain a separate library card. One has to wonder: if the county is interested in providing such services for its population, why not work with a system already in place and operating successfully, all over the county?

allenwoll
allenwoll

To us old-timers, e-books are NOT the same : It is a matter of gut-feeling. . One can POSSESS a paper book, but can NOT possess an e-book.. The present generation, of course, just scratches its collective head in utter puzzlement at such talk -- but you oldies KNOW what I mean !

meerkat218
meerkat218

I think printed book free libraries are a joke. Yes, of course they need computers, and access to digital materials, but to go completely w/out books is just stupid.  I have a Kindle and love it.  I also have computers.  I don't NEED to go to the library to access those things. I want to be able to check out a new book I'm interested in, and you'd be amazed how many books are not yet, or never will be, on Kindle or similar devices.

The current younger generation of librarians is a joke. They've been brainwashed to "dismiss" books as a "waste of space"....note the comment by the Head of the Assoc. of Librarians, above.  Another website had an article about the public library trashing, literally, hundreds of thousands of books in its attempt to go digital....c'mon, they're tax payer supported.  People should speak up.

CynthiaAvishegnath
CynthiaAvishegnath

I don't understand. Could someone explain the situation to me?

They have a six story library building which they are struggling to find use for.

But then they spent $2.4 million to build another one.


bangmycrocklikestirfry
bangmycrocklikestirfry

Add a bar and a stripper and then you have something the whole family can truly enjoy. Otherwise what a waste, its like Blockbuster making you pay to go watch movies from inside their store. First of all, who goes to Blockbuster and second who goes to a library? That was sooo two decades ago.




infonomx
infonomx

Through the BiblioTech, residents of Bexar County will be able to access approximately 10,000 current titles through e-readers that they can check out to take home or read on the premises.

Only in America could a local government spend $2.4 million to develop a digital library of ebooks yet not allow the books to be read online. I probably have more books than this punk library and my books are available to anyone on the planet 365/24/7, not just some county in Texas that requires you to drive to the location to read the books.  Embarrassing for Texas and America. Seriously, what a joke !

davecu41
davecu41

The Gutenberg Project has thousands of books for download in many formats and are legal.

When a book's copyright is not re-newed, I think after 23 years, it becomes public domain. the Project involves many universities and colleges who scan, page by page, these books into public files.


FYI

BlondieDeville
BlondieDeville

Pretty excited about this! This is 3 miles for me & in the hood where my mom, grandma & uncle live. It's awesome to have a cutting edge library that is not catering to a well off neighborhood but a blue collar predominantly Hispanic area. Those of you that worry there is a paper book library at an old drive in theater pabout 2.5 miles away. & just to say so...that building used to be an old Winn's store I remember buying a fileto'fish at the McD near by & it had a coupon for a free fish at Winn's! That building had gone unused for maybe 17 y

wssulady
wssulady

People will also want a physical product; books, CDs, DVDs, Blu Rays,  Records. I think the concept is great though.

reesedorrycott
reesedorrycott

Soft focus, which is what e-books require your eyes to do, is very very bad for your eyesight.  I own thousands of books myself, all in print.

jessieelder
jessieelder

I live in a community of about 14,000 people. Our library has more than 90,000 items available. So all of Bexar County, including the large city of San Antonio, has 10,000 ebooks? That's ridiculous!

Who gets to choose what that county full of people gets to read at the library? This is a dumb and expensive rip-off.


ErikaMurray
ErikaMurray

Very excited to check this out! But it's not the nation's first all-digital library, is it?  Wasn't there one in Arizona once upon a time?

dduesterhoeft
dduesterhoeft

It is NOT a "bookless" library.  eBooks are books. Perhaps you mean a paperless library?

BethGraham
BethGraham

@stlriver Had the county wished to cooperate with the city in this endeavor, the operating hours could certainly have been a part of the agreement. This is a non-reason.

minlin9
minlin9

@allenwoll There actually are teens and tweens who much prefer a book!

CynthiaAvishegnath
CynthiaAvishegnath

Allen, I am past AARP membership age. I like ebooks. I am no longer accustomed to paper books. They are too heavy for me. Carrying books break my back and my knees. I am too lazy to hold a paper book, too.

E-books allow me to search. In my profession, I have to search for facts quickly - old folks need to use technology to compete well with young engineers. We cannot afford to lose out.

Growing old is not an excuse not to exploit every possible technology to our advantage, to enhance our employment and financial positions. I keep technical blogs where clients could understand - every time I learn a new method, I jot it down in one of my pages my clients or compatriots could refer to,

In certain respects, i am obsolete - I have only recently got accustomed to texting; I don't have twitter or facebook because I am not accustomed to having friends you do not actually meet. Despite my obsolescence in the social respect, I will not let growing old be an impediment for me to exploit technology.

minlin9
minlin9

@meerkat218 That "joke" comment is a wicked-wide generalization!  Not only teens and tweens (as posted above) but some 20s also prefer physical, paper books.

BethGraham
BethGraham

@CynthiaAvishegnath Cynthia, please see my post above. The City of San Antonio is not struggling to find a use for the existing Central Library. The Central Library is doing just fine. The new "Bibliotech" was constructed by Bexar County, of which San Antonio is the County seat, for unknown reasons. It is unclear why the County, if it truly wished to offer such services to its population, would choose NOT to work within the framework of an organization with more than 100 years of experience in providing public library service - an organization, moreover, which the county has contributed to financially for more than 70 years. A waste of money? Not exactly. Unnecessary duplication of effort? Absolutely.

BethGraham
BethGraham

@bangmycrocklikestirfry  Who goes to a library? People who can't afford computers or internet service. People looking for help finding jobs or starting new businesses. People who can't afford Netflix. People looking for free family activities. People looking for other people interested in the same kinds of books they are. In San Antonio, there are between 5 and 6  million visits annually to the public library. Do some research on the library in your own town before you share your uninformed opinion.

meerkat218
meerkat218

@davecu41 The book goes into the "public domain" after 70 yrs.  For Kindle readers, those books (which includes most "classics" ) are free.

meerkat218
meerkat218

@reesedorrycott NOT true.  My Kindle allows the font size to be adjusted as large as needed, and there's nothing "soft focused" about it.  Check out the new Paperwhite kindle which lights up from the inside, so you don't need any other form of light to read.  The text is brillant, and doesn't strain your eyes in any way. 

Having said that, I also own LOTS of printed books, and would not want a library w/out them.  WHY would I want to check out an e-reader when I have a kindle, thats a strange way of thinking( whoever dreamed up this library).....they're CHEAP now.  Whereas a lot of books are not on Kindle, and never will be, and those I need access to printed books to read.

Readerkkd998s
Readerkkd998s

@reesedorrycott Perhaps but you can enlarge the digital text so you don't have to strain your eyes to see it, like you do with so many paper books.

BethGraham
BethGraham

@jessieelder No, only the "Bibliotech," built and operated by Bexar County has only 10,000 e-Books. The San Antonio Public Library, operated by the City of San Antonio, has additional thousands of e-Books as well as "analog" books. 

AngelaBirch
AngelaBirch

@jessieelder  No this is one of many branches of a large library system this one just happens to not have books on paper all the other 26 branches do have books on paper.

ErikaMurray
ErikaMurray

Ha! Just kidding! You mentioned that.  That's what I get for skimming the article!

meerkat218
meerkat218

@dduesterhoeft Yes, ebooks are books. I have a Kindle and love it...but also want access to printed books, many of which are not on Kindle.  The whole concept of a book-less library is absurd.

allenwoll
allenwoll

@minlin9 @allenwoll -- THAT is good to hear : It makes me feel less of an anachronism ! ! . Cynthia above feels differently : Good that we are not all carbon copies (or jet-printer copies)..

minlin9
minlin9

@meerkat218 @BlondieDeville There actually are people who cannot afford ereaders, but have the right of access to information.  Sometimes I think that is forgotten in the rush to have the latest gadget.


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