Bookless Libraries? They’re Coming


Just this week, I was watching an episode of Downton Abbey and one of the scenes was set in the library. Beautiful leather-bound volumes filled the vast room from floor to ceiling and covered every wall. Lord Grantham took no notice of them at all, as he stood, brandy in hand, waiting for his valet to fetch his evening coat.

The visual image of this early twentieth century library struck me on a couple of levels; first, how books like the ones that adorn the Crawley’s home were once meant for the very elite. The servants downstairs might have indulged themselves occasionally in a “penny dreadful” but it is unlikely that any of them read, or had access to, much more.

The second thing that I noticed was the sheer numbers of tomes, and how unnecessary, really, it is in the twenty-first century to have to devote so much physical space to the printed word. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing I love more than the heft of a book. I love the way they smell. I delight in actually turning pages.

Until it is time to move.

I have as many books in my Kindle now as I do on my buckling shelves. And they all fit in my smallest pocketbook.

So I suppose I understand that modern libraries are facing the same dilemma. The space and time needed to house and administer books is enormous. Not long ago, “bookless” libraries were only an idea, but now they are happening.

This fall, San Antonio, Texas will open its first entirely electronic lending library. There will be fifty computer terminals and eReaders that patrons can check out and take home. Even though the project cost $1.5 million dollars, its advocate, Judge Nelson Wolff, argues that it is cost effective. The new institution, dubbed “BiblioTech” uses existing city facilities, and, perhaps more importantly, is available to a largely underserved community whose residents often do not have their own personal electronic devices.

Is this the future for most libraries? Probably. But not for a while yet. To say there is still an enormous amount of material to be digitized is a understatement. And there are copyright issues with which to contend. Sarah Houghton, director of a library in California, complains that “99 percent” of the materials that the general public want to check out,  such as best-sellers, simply aren’t “available to libraries digitally.”

Another issue inhibiting the growth of bookless libraries is the training of staff, not only on use of the devices, but how to explain them to their patrons, many of whom may have had little or no experience with digital readers. Moreover, the expense of acquiring all of these new devices is often prohibitive for most public libraries. And what happens when these devices become outdated? Today, it seems that technology improves every two years, if not sooner.

Better not upset Lord Grantham just yet. You may still need to borrow that volume of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America