America’s First Bookless (Digital-Only) Library

Libraries have significantly changed in recent decades. They’re no longer just a place to borrow books. Computer and internet access have become an integral part of the service – and most libraries now offer e-book lending, along with DVDs, CDs and other services. For example, Melbourne’s City Library offers the opportunity to play Playstation games at the library, checking out the controller on your library card - or to sit down and play the in-house piano.

In San Antonio, Texas, books have been taken out of the equation altogether. BiblioTech (otherwise known as Bexar County Digital Library) is America’s first bookless library. The library is stocked with 10,000 ebooks, 500 ereaders, 48 computers, and 20 iPads and laptops. The e-readers can be borrowed for two weeks at a time, loaded with five e-books. (And in the four months of its operation so far, no e-readers have gone missing.) There’s a café and a children’s section. But no print books.

‘The library is no longer the place where you walk in and the thing you most pay attention to is the book collection,’ American Library president Maureen Sullivan told Time magazine.

Neil Gaiman made a similar point in a recent Guardian article in passionate praise of libraries. ‘Libraries are places that people go to for information. Books are only the tip of the information iceberg,’ he said. ‘Libraries are also, for example, places that people, who may not have computers, who may not have internet connections, can go online without paying anything: hugely important when the way you find out about jobs, apply for jobs or apply for benefits is increasingly migrating exclusively online.’

Since the US recession, 40 of the 62 libraries in Queens (New York City) have been renovated ‘in part to increase space for jobseekers’. Twenty-six years ago, 80% of the library’s focus was on loaning materials. In 2013, just 30% of the emphasis was on lending, while 70% is focused on ‘programs and services like resume writing, job search tips and language classes’.

In Bexar County, the home of Bibliotech, at least a third of residents don’t have a home internet connection. San Antonio is America’s seventh-largest city, but ranks 60th in literacy. ‘How do you advance literacy with so few resources available?’ BiblioTech project coordinator Laura Cole asked AAP.

So far, residents have taken to the new facilities: about half of the e-readers are checked out at any given time, and the iMacs are usually taken up when the nearby high school finishes for the day.

Previous attempts to open digital-only libraries in America have not gone as well. In wealthy Newport Beach, California, there was a community backlash against the idea of a bookless branch, and the print books were reinstated. But it may be the way of the future, nonetheless.

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