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.'

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

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.

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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.