It’s the sort of thud made in the 1980s by doomed reports promising a “paperless office”. Anyone who remembers that much-mocked slogan might well shrug off this latest idea as overheated punditry.
Or perhaps they should think again, as the world’s first completely paperless public library is scheduled to open this summer in Bexar County, Texas, in the United States.
Bexar County’s so-called BiblioTech is a low-cost project with big ambitions. Its first branch will be in a relatively poor district on the city of San Antonio’s South Side.
It will have 100 e-readers on loan, and dozens of screens where the public will be able to browse, study, and learn digital skills. However it’s likely most users will access BiblioTech’s initial holding of 10,000 digital titles from the comfort of their homes, way out in the Texas hinterland.
It will be a truly bookless library – although that is not a phrase much to the liking of BiblioTech’s project co-ordinator, Laura Cole. She prefers the description “digital library” – after all, there will be books there, but in digital form.
‘Not even a bookstore…'”For us this was just an obvious solution to a growing problem,” she says.
That problem was “explosive” population growth around San Antonio, in suburbs and satellite towns way outside the city limits.
“We’ve had to look to how we provide services to these unincorporated areas,” she said.
“While the city does a beautiful job in providing public libraries, these can only easily be used by people living there”.
San Antonio’s book-rich public libraries will be unaffected by the project.
Bexar County, by contrast, never had a public library service. “I think we’re at an advantage there,” Ms Cole said. “They’ve never had a library with books – there’s not even a bookstore here.”
This sets it apart from earlier bookless library experiments at Newport Beach, California, and Tucson, Arizona – which both reverted to offering real as well as e-books, by public demand.
As well as offering digital books to 1.7m people, the $1.5m BiblioTech project has a big community education remit. It will partner with local schools and run digital literacy courses and will stay open late into the evenings.
The iLibraryThe project’s instigator, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, sees it as a pilot for a county-wide scheme. Other sources of funding will be sought to build up the services.
Interestingly, Judge Wolff is a keen collector of first editions, the bibliophile ushering in the bookless future: “But the world is changing and this is the best, most effective way to bring services to our community.
Judge Wolff has cited Apple founder Steve Jobs as inspiration for the BiblioTech.
But the project has also gained impetus from the success of the University of Texas San Antonio (UTSA) bookless engineering school library which opened three years ago, the first paperless academic library. UTSA’s director of libraries Dr Krisellen Maloney has worked with the BiblioTech team and sits on its advisory board.
Outside Texas, bookless libraries have also made most ground in the academic sector, with the swiftest change in science, maths and engineering libraries.
The first such facility in the UK is likely to be at Imperial College, London, which last year announced that over 98% of its journal collections were digital, and that it had stopped buying print textbooks.
Even so, it was still paying around £4m per year in subscriptions to publishers, even after concerted efforts to negotiate better digital deals for universities.
Touching historyIt’s clear that bookless libraries are not a cheaper option for cash strapped colleges and local authorities. Producing digital versions of text books can be even more costly, given that users will expect more regular updating and interactive features.
There are some libraries which will never go bookless, because their collections contain books that are important historical artefacts in themselves.
Although many of these rare texts are being digitised under schemes such as that run by Google, these books as physical objects remain essential resources for researchers.
Christopher Platt, director of collections and circulation at the New York Public Library (NYPL), argued that accessing a digital version of a book was sometimes not enough.
“People travel from all over the world to our library, not just to access an item, but to touch it and feel it to get a sense of it that speaks to the overall importance of the work,” he said. “This is not sentimentality, it’s an important fact.”
However the NYPL is also embracing the digital world with enthusiasm and is deeply committed to offering digital material.
Last year the library made 880,000 e-book loans – a fivefold increase over 2008, Mr Platt said. The library has 91 branches around the city, he added: “If you look at e-book loans as a virtual branch, it would regularly be number two or three in terms of monthly usage.”
On the shelfContrary to some reports, the NYPL is not reducing its holdings of books – although some 1.5 million books in the stacks of its famous Central Library building on 42nd Street in Manhattan will be relocated in underground vaults as part of a refurbishment scheme beginning this year.
The space will be used to create a “spectacular” new public library , but it will not be bookless. “In fact, far more books will be visible than ever in the past,” Mr Platt said.
But bookless does not mean cheap. Publishers were charging libraries up to five times the normal hardback price for an e-book of a popular title, he said. And certain types of book – illustrated children’s titles, how-to manuals – simply did not work as well as e-books, especially when some library e-readers were still text-only.
This was just one of many reasons, he felt, that bookless libraries would not be sweeping the board just yet.
A major issue was to obtain guarantees of a consistently good reader experience across all platforms and technologies – something which NYPL, along with 200 other big libraries across north America, and increasingly elsewhere, is working towards in a new coalition, readersfirst.org.
Library closuresIn the UK, however, the major issue was not so much bookless libraries but library-less boroughs. Authors have been particularly active in campaigns to resist funding cuts that are leading to public library closures.
Children’s author Alan Gibbons is a passionate believer in the role of libraries, especially school libraries, but he’s also a keen user of the panoply of “e” and “i” prefixed devices.
But he has misgivings about the notion of a bookless library. “We have to manage the change intelligently. The danger is that reading becomes utterly atomised”. Otherwise there could be the “obliteration of minority and mid-list authors”.
He argues that the library space and the librarian are crucial elements. Books could be replaced by e-readers, but virtual space could not replace library buildings. “The only issue for me is how new readers are made, and I don’t see that happening in social networks.”
Working in international schools in China and Thailand, Mr Gibbons noted that even in the most elite schools where very child was given an iPad, the school library, stocked with real books, was seen as an essential resource.
Christopher Platt at New York Public Library has another take on the bookless future: “It’s still early game. We’ve been 100 years getting the print stuff right, so it could be a while before we get the e-stuff right.”
Do you think a library is still a library without printed books? What would be lost with an all digital library instead of books on bookshelves?