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San Antonio plans one of the nation's first bookless libraries

The $1.5-million San Antonio library – which will have computers, tablets, and e-readers, but no paper books – will be like 'an Apple store.'

By Husna Haq / January 21, 2013

A rendering of the BiblioTech, one of the nation's first bookless libraries to open in San Antonio, Texas in the Fall of 2013.

Courtesy of Bexar County Government

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It may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s no joke – a San Antonio library is planning to open one of the country’s first bookless libraries this fall.

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That’s right, BiblioTech, a $1.5 million Bexar County paperless library will have scores of computer terminals, laptops, tablets, and e-readers – but not a dog-eared classic or dusty reference book in sight. 

“Think of an Apple store,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who led his county’s bookless library project, told NPR when describing the planned library.

The 4,989-squre-foot, digital-only library, one of the first of its kind, will feature 100 e-readers available for circulation, 50 e-readers for children, 50 computer stations, 25 laptops, and 25 tablets for on-site use. Patrons can check out e-readers for two weeks or load books onto their own devices.

“A technological evolution is taking place,” Wolff says. “And I think we’re stepping in at the right time.”

It’s a trend that appears to be catching on. As we reported on in a July 2012 post, “Bookless Libraries – has it really come to this?,” a number of libraries, academic and public, have joined the paperless bandwagon. It began with academic libraries, including Kansas State University’s engineering school, the University of Texas at San Antonio, Stanford University’s engineering school, Drexel University, and Cornell. From there it spread to public libraries, including the Balboa Branch library in Newport Beach, California and even the New York Public Library, which doesn’t plan a bookless future but “a future with far fewer books.”

That’s a vision that makes many bibliophiles – us included – shudder.

In an interview with NPR, Sarah Houghton, director of the San Rafael Public Library in California and a proponent of digital media, called the bookless library “premature.”

Most communities, she says, simply aren’t ready for a digital-only library. For starters, some people simply prefer reading physical books. What’s more, not everyone is technologically literate and may need considerable help – help that would require training staff and swelling the library budget, unlikely in today’s budget-starved environment. Finally, she adds, a lot of content simply isn’t available for digital licensing and purchase.

“So your selection of bestsellers and popular media just went down the toilet because 99 percent of that is not available to libraries digitally,” she says, adding that many publishers either won’t license to libraries or offer expensive or unrealistic terms.

Perhaps most importantly, as we wrote in a previous blog post on the topic, “the shrinking library deprives us of a critical ingredient in the exploration and discovery of books: the ability to wander, browse, and stumble upon new treasures at random.”

And as bestselling author Michael Connelly told Time last year, libraries are also community gathering spaces. “The library is a societal tent pole. There are a lot of ideas under it. Knock out the pole and the tent comes down,” he said.

Houghton’s thoughts on the future of the bookless library? “I think it’ll be a good 100 to 150 years from now until all libraries are completely digital,” she told NPR.

We don’t know about you, but we’re breathing a collective sigh of relief.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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