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, 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, 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.
“It opens the door for possibilities,” said Diane Greenwald, director of Warwick Public Library. “You have to do what makes sense for your community and what their needs are.”
Greenwald says it is a “cool concept” but she wants to see how it works over a period of time. Greenwald isn’t sure how the concept would translate to Warwick, but she could see it working as a branch of the main library system in the future.
“I think it’s a positive if we see it as a supplement,” said Greenwald, adding that she doesn’t see it replacing libraries in general.
“I think [the public’s] expectation is that we have books,” said Greenwald.
Although right now Greenwald doesn’t believe that all libraries will go completely digital, she knows to never try and predict the future.
“I’ve been working in libraries for almost 30 years and I never would have predicted 30 years ago what we see now,” she said.
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 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.”
Ruth Sullivan, Dean of Learning Resources and head of all libraries at the Community College of Rhode Island, sees more and more students coming in with iPads and tablets, and sees electronic resources as “the wave of the future.”
“It’s understandable people would be attracted to that,” said Sullivan about Bibliotech.
But Sullivan agrees that not all the materials needed for a library, college or public, are available in digital formats so it is unlikely that all libraries would go all-digital anytime soon.
“I see a future at libraries with increased technology but still physical books,” said Sullivan.
Sullivan does see advantages to an all-digital environment such as 24-hour access, but there are issues such as ensuring that everyone has the appropriate technology to access the information.
Andrew Ashton, associate university librarian for digital technologies at Brown University, agreed that striking the balance between technology and print materials is “the sweet spot” for libraries.
“It’s hard to imagine those collections would ever be replaced by all digital,” said Ashton. “I wouldn’t want to say anything is impossible … Depending on how a school is configured, I could see some libraries going this way.”
Although, Ashton said Brown would likely never go this way because of the volume of historical materials.
“Their value is actually in their physical presence,” he said.
When speaking about Bibliotech, Ashton was interested to see any data that was used to determine the community was interested in an all-digital library and to determine how cost-effective the format is.
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.
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.
Sullivan agreed that some historical materials could not be digitized, and printing issues could make it difficult for a college library to go all-digital.
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.
Greenwald believes the Warwick community will always want books, but the library’s e-reader lending program has been very successful.
“The e-readers are almost never here,” said Greenwald of the dozen iPad minis available to borrow. “We could definitely use some more.”
Greenwald explained that the iPad minis are loaded with about 30 books. Patrons who take one out can read one of those, borrow e-books from Ocean State Libraries E-Zone, or take the opportunity to use other features of the device. In the spring, Greenwald hopes to look into purchasing more devices for the program.
The library has also found success with its new Idea Lab, which features laptops, a 3D printer, equipment to digitize videotapes and records, and more. Open since November, the lab is used for classes, demonstrations, crafts and other activities.
“I think it’s great,” said Greenwald. “It’s a work in progress.”
Greenwald has also noticed an increase in traffic on the wireless system, meaning more people are bringing their own devices into the library instead of library desktops.
“We’re always looking ahead to what’s out there,” she said. “It’s just about change. We’re trying to embrace change instead of fight it, as long as it fits the community.”
CCRI’s libraries have electronic materials, including databases of articles, e-books and digital textbooks, however there is no option to download those items to e-readers – they can only be accessed through laptops, computers or tablets to be read. Down the line, Sullivan said CCRI is exploring the option of having tablet devices in the library for students to use in addition to laptops and desktops.
All of Brown University’s libraries still have physical collections, but there is a group working toward digitizing older and rare materials so they can be put online as well. They are also managing what Ashton calls “born digital” material, such as papers and other materials created by people at Brown. The Brown Library also lends out laptops to students, and Ashton said the school is exploring the possibility of loaning iPads.