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A Digital Public Library Without Paper Books

San Antonio public officials explore creating smaller public libraries that offer patrons only e-readers and digital materials.

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The next library in San Antonio, Texas, may not have any paper books for its patrons.

Nelson Wolff, a judge in Bexar County, Texas, where San Antonio is located, and Sergio Rodriguez, commissioner for the county's first precinct, have proposed a plan to create a library called BiblioTech that offers electronic media exclusively.

Though there are bookless academic libraries, at the University of Texas at San Antonio for example, Wolff said in a phone interview that he believes that BiblioTech will be first public library without paper books.

"We think with a clean slate we can do it in a cost effective way," Wolff said. He anticipates savings not only through lower costs for books, maintenance and staff, but through reduced real estate requirements. "Most libraries are in big buildings," he said. "We're able to do this in about 4,000 square feet. If this works right, we'll be able to go into shopping centers."

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On Tuesday, the Bexar County Commissioners Court will consider proposals for e-book providers -- the plan is for BiblioTech to deal with integrated library systems vendors like Polaris Library Systems and 3M rather than with publishers or e-book retailers like Amazon. The court will also consider a project budget, construction services and the creation of a seven-member advisory board.

BiblioTech intends to start with 100 e-readers that can be loaned out, 50 pre-loaded e-readers for children, 50 computer stations, 25 laptops and 25 tablets, with additional accommodations planned for the visually impaired.

Wolff said that while reaction to his proposal has been positive, those with an affinity for paper books have expressed reservations. As someone with a substantial collection of first-edition printed books, he counts himself among those who still appreciate printed matter. To reassure book lovers, he said that BiblioTech will supplement traditional libraries, not replace them.

But it may not be long before libraries with books seem as unusual as garages with horses. "When you go into a public library today, people are gathered around computer terminals," Wolff observed.

Patricia Tuohy, executive director of the Central Texas Library System, said in a phone interview that while she hadn't reviewed the specifics of the proposal, she wasn't surprised. "Many libraries are moving toward electronic materials," she said.

What may be surprising is that libraries are thriving even as the public's appetite for paper books is dwindling. Tuohy says that while she's seen circulation dropping, library visits are up. "People want human interaction in a place that's neutral," she explained.

Public libraries have always responded to the public, said Tuohy, and if the public wants electronic media, public libraries will respond.

"I look at electronic books as just the next format," said Tuohy. "It was a big deal when vinyl records were put into collections in the '40s. Libraries have always added formats to serve the public."

But Tuohy cautions that the economics have yet to be ironed out. A typical library branch might circulate 10,000 titles a month, she said. To do that electronically would be cost-prohibitive -- most libraries can't afford to supply that many patrons with e-reading devices at one time. And expecting library visitors to bring their own devices may be expecting too much. Tuohy said that in Texas, a large portion of the population doesn't have Internet access or a computer at home.

"Unless you have a lot of money or a population where everyone has an iPad, it's too expensive," she said.

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User Rank: Apprentice
1/15/2013 | 3:33:00 PM
re: A Digital Public Library Without Paper Books
As someone who developed his love of reading at the public library, I am not sure I like the idea of a library without paper books. But I understand that public libraries have to adapt to the times, just like they did when they started offering records and then video tapes. If a move like this keeps libraries open and serving more people it could turn out to be a good thing. Paul Travis, InformationWeek
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