What do you read at a bookless library?

What do you read at a bookless library?

Posted by Carly B. Boxer on January 24, 2013 in Blog.

Over the past two weeks, the nation’s first bookless public library has garnered quite a lot of attention. BiblioTech, a new library proposed by a Judge from Bexar County, Texas will include computer stations, tablets, and e-readers instead of books. Nelson Wolff, the Judge behind the project, reportedly drew his inspiration from Walter Issacson’s biography of Steve Jobs; the influence of Apple-style design seems evident enough in the super sleek concept drawings of the site.

Wolff’s goal is to provide access to technology, to allow BiblioTech’s visitors to learn to use the devices at the library, and to lend out books in a way more in keeping with current digital practices. BiblioTech will replace the traditional stacks with e-books, lent out remotely or available by checking an e-reader out from the library. Wolff is hoping to maintain and eventually expand a 10,000 volume e-book collection by seeking out partnerships with publishers and distributors.

The news of BiblioTech’s rise coincides with the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project’s release of data from a national survey on library services in the digital age. According to Pew:

  • 80% of Americans say borrowing books is a “very important” service libraries provide.
  • 80% say reference librarians are a “very important” service of libraries.
  • 77% say free access to computers and the internet is a “very important” service of libraries.

That is to say, when we consider our expectations for what a library should offer, Internet and computer access is now almost on par with access to books. The study goes on to note that “people have different views about whether libraries should move some printed books and stacks out of public locations to free up space for tech centers, reading rooms, meeting rooms, and cultural events: 20% of Americans ages 16 and older said libraries should “definitely” make those changes; 39% said libraries “maybe” should do that; and 36% said libraries should “definitely not” change by moving books out of public spaces.”

While there are clearly more respondents vehemently against moving books out of libraries than vehemently for it, it seems most telling that there’s such a large degree of ambivalence about the process. 39% of those survey responded “maybe.” That means that some 59% of respondents were not against moving books out of libraries, that they agreed that there is at least some merit in doing away with immediate access to physical books in order to make room for other services.

BiblioTech confirms these responses to a certain extent, but the fanfare around it feels in many ways like a refutation of the above findings; perhaps the ways in which we actually use libraries has yet to catch up with our imagined ideal 21st century library. Among respondents who had visited a library within the past year (just over half of the 2500+ people surveyed), 73% reported doing so in order to borrow print books. Although “using computers” is not one of the responses given for library use within that segment, 54% claim to have used libraries for research purposes, and 50% claim to have visited in order to get help from library staff — let’s say we can interpret both of these as partially associated with computer use. Those percentages are significantly lower than the numbers associated with use of print books. Within the total sample of people surveyed, 26% claimed to have used free Internet or computer access at their libraries.

The question now is whether these results reflect current technological limitations in public libraries, or if instead library use will continue unchanged as access to tech resources expands. Are the Pew Center’s findings the result of greater access to and familiarity with print resources (traditional library services that could change as time goes on), or are they the result of a genuine preference for print materials among library visitors? BiblioTech seems like it will bring us a step closer to finding out; by facilitating increased access to digital resources and coming to better understand how library visitors use those resources, we can assess to what extent these results are a consequence of the limitations of current libraries and, conversely, to what extent they reflect the preferences of library users.


Image courtesy of Paul Lowry on Flickr; used under a CC BY 2.0 license.

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