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.

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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.”