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A New Chapter? A Launch Of The Bookless Library

If your idea of a library is row upon row of nicely shelved hardcovers, then you'll be in for a surprise when a planned new library in San Antonio opens this fall.

"Think of an Apple store," Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff says while explaining the layout of the new library, BiblioTech.

In keeping with technological advances, the county will house a library of neatly arranged LCD screens and gadgets instead of the traditional banquet of dog-eared print and paper books. The public library will be one of the first digital-only libraries of its kind.

With 50 computer terminals and a stock of laptops and tablets on-site, the building will also offer an array of preloaded e-readers available for the card-carrying customer to take home.

"The library is a chance to expand the scope of opportunities for people to learn technology," Wolff explains. "The world is changing."

He contends that the $1.5 million project will be cost-effective, as it'll be located in an existing county-owned building and available to many underserved communities where residents may not have access to at-home computers.

In fact, improving technological access to lower-income areas of the predominantly Hispanic county is what led to Wolff's bookless endeavor. Many of the unincorporated areas of the county, he says, lack public libraries.

Short-Lived And 'Premature' History Of Bookless Libraries

This replacement of jacket covers for hard drives is a calculated choice that many other libraries and officials around the nation have also considered, yet — in most cases — quickly abandoned.

In 2002, at the Santa Rosa Branch Library in Tucson, Ariz., officials attempted to bridge the digital gap in the community by offering a digital-only library. Years later, however, residents — fatigued by the electronics — requested that actual books be added to the collection, and today, enjoy a full-access library with computers.

In describing the Santa Rosa library's attempt and San Antonio's plan to redefine public libraries, Sarah Houghton, director of the San Rafael Public Library in California, has only one word: "premature."

The primary advantage of bookless arenas, according to Houghton? You can repurpose the saved space for work, study or collaboration areas.

Otherwise, she lists three reasons why they're not such a great idea quite yet.

"First, some people simply prefer physical media — they don't want to read on a device," Houghton says.

Second, she points to the issue of the digital divide. Those who aren't necessarily technologically literate may need extra over-the-shoulder help with the devices in a way that would require a large operation and, consequently, a big budget.

"A huge element is training staff, and that's even presuming that the library can afford enough of these devices to meet the demand," Houghton explains.

And the biggest issue? Most content is simply not available digitally to license and purchase.

"So your selection of best-sellers and popular media just went down the toilet because 99 percent of that is not available to libraries digitally," she says.

Many publishers don't license to libraries, and those willing to do business often have what Houghton considers outlandish terms — too expensive or unrealistic for a library's allowance.

An 'Evolving' Digital Backdrop

The tech-savvy librarian adds that her reluctance to embrace bookless libraries is a bit counterintuitive because she's an advocate for digital media. But the digital landscape, Houghton contends, simply isn't ready to revolutionarily merge with libraries.

"I think it'll be a good 100 to 150 years from now until all libraries are completely digital," she says. "I think in terms of seeing a trend of 10 to 20 percent of libraries becoming bookless, that'll take maybe 10 years or so."

At the forefront of the digital movement — if it's not too early to call it that — are academic libraries. In 2010, the engineering and technology library at the University of Texas, San Antonio pruned all of its print materials for e-books and e-journals. And just last year, Stanford University ditched bookshelves for screens.

Stanford's Terman Engineering Library adds close to 5,000 e-books a year and currently has more than 65,000. Despite expected disadvantages, such as possible student copyright infringements or not all the needed books available in digital format, Helen Josephine, head of the engineering library, heralds the launch as an overall success.

"It's available on our network 24/7, so students can download them locally on their computer, phone, wherever, whenever," Josephine says. "Continuing to make the library info space relevant as the technology improves is definitely where we're moving."

That's the mantra of Judge Nelson Wolff, of Bexar County: Design to fit the digital panorama. While he doesn't necessarily think it's time to open an existential conversation about the state of hardbacks, he makes it clear that the dialogue is certainly shifting.

"A technological evolution is taking place," he says." "And I think we're stepping in at the right time."

If successful, Wolff hopes to clone the model across the county.

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Reema Khrais joined WUNC in 2013 to cover education in pre-kindergarten through high school. Previously, she won the prestigious Joan B. Kroc Fellowship. For the fellowship, she spent a year at NPR where she reported nationally, produced on Weekends on All Things Considered and edited on the digital desk. She also spent some time at New York Public Radio as an education reporter, covering the overhaul of vocational schools, the contentious closures of city schools and age-old high school rivalries.