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Is the library's future bookless?

Posting in Technology
 
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A library in San Antonio, Texas is being hailed as the "library of the future."

What makes the $2.3 million Bexar County BiblioTech public library unique? It doesn't have any books.

It seems almost sinful: a public library where patrons checkout e-readers instead of physical books. But the first all-digital public library in the United States has seen success in its first four months of operation, according to the Associated Press:

Back in the early 2000s, community leaders in Bibliotech’s neighborhood of low-income apartments and thrift stores railed about not even having a nearby bookstore, said Laura Cole, BiblioTech’s project coordinator. A decade later, Cole said, most families in the area still don’t have wi-fi.
“How do you advance literacy with so few resources available?” she said.
Residents are taking advantage now. The library is on pace to surpass 100,000 visitors in its first year. Finding an open iMac among the four dozen at BiblioTech is often difficult after the nearby high school lets out, and about half of the facility’s e-readers are checked out at any given time, each loaded with up to five books. 
Another major advantage of the bookless library: the cost of building or renting the actual library space falls because you don't need to make room for all those books. 

But not everyone thinks all-digital libraries should be the future. Camila Alire, president of the American Library Association, told NPR, in response to a boarding school in Massachusetts trading their entire physical book collection for digital books, that there should be more of a balance:

"Students learn differently, and some students will take to digital resources and information technology like a duck takes to water." Alire says. "And then there are other students who learn by turning the pages, by handling the materials."

Still, the bookless library is just one example of ways libraries are innovating in order to stay relevant in the digital age. Academics see the future library as being "more about what it does for people rather than what it has for people." That means less of a focus on actual books and more of a focus on libraries as spaces of civic engagement, learning, and other services. It also means librarians will have to embrace new job functions and titles, like "Robotic Maintenance Engineer," "Lifestyle Design Librarian," and "Content Packaging Librarian."  

In Greece, Google is funding "'Future Library”, an effort that aims to transform public libraries into media labs and hubs of creativity, innovation and learning" for the community. Chicago's idea for library of the future? A free maker space equipped with 3D printers and other machines and design software. In Ohio, it's "technology petting zoos." The list of ways libraries are evolving is long and varied.

But library lovers can take solace in the fact that innovation isn't happening in vain. In a recent Pew study, 90 percent of Americans said that if their public library were to close it would have an impact on the community (63 percent said it would be a major impact). More than half say that their libraries have done a good job embracing new technology. At the same time, more than half of library patrons say that their library usage hasn't changed over the last five years, while 26 percent said it has increased, and only 22 percent said it decreased.

But at what point do the changes taking place at these important cultural institutions cause them to turn into something we barely recognize? As long as libraries can find innovative ways to be viewed as important resources in communities, I'm not sure that matters.

Photos: Flickr/timtom.ch, Facebook: Bexar Bibliotech

— By on January 6, 2014, 1:20 PM PST

Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure