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

The Truth About Youth and Books

Young people today just don’t read enough, right?

If you’re under the age of 30, you’ve probably been accused of this at some point in your life. In fact, it seems that every upcoming generation is stereotyped as lazier than the one that came before it. We’ve all overheard the same complaints: “always up to no good with their fancy devices,” “always at their computers or watching too much TV.” “Why, back in my day…” You know the drill. In the end both sides come to believe that kids in the old days were both more capable of entertaining themselves and walked uphill both ways while they did it.

But what if the public perception of youth culture is just a little bit wrong? What if young people actually turned out to be the age group that reads the most, and frequents the library the most? Could that be? A survey conducted by Pew Research Center aimed to find out the truth about youth and books. Their results show that not only do 18-24 year-olds read more than any other age group, but that many are more open to it because of the availability of e-readers and e-books. So before you curse the decline of print publishing, think of how it might serve the next generation of iPad, Kindle, and Nook readers, and read on to find out more about the Pew Center’s findings.

Drawbacks to the Kindle in the Classroom?

If you were to go back to the old copies of the novels and plays I still rely upon—To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Hamlet—to do my daily teaching, you would see all sorts of scribbled notes in different colored pens.  You would see highlighters in every color imaginable.  You would see small pieces of printed material taped to pages.  You would see dog-ears and great big rips among the stressed-out bindings of my paperback copies.  You would see the small word “Ha!” scrawled next to anything remotely funny.

Well, according to a new Princeton study, if I relied upon a Kindle DX to view these same literary masterpieces, I’d be in quite the pickle, indeed.

I remember a teacher I had long ago preaching to the class about how margin notes reeked of lower intelligence.  I can only laugh at her now as I use some of those very notes, some from wise souls as far back as high school, to teach my own classes.  Although not for everyone, notes on the side of a page are like gold to me.  They always reveal the teacher’s wisdom on the subject:  wisdom that I often lacked at the time, . . . and that wisdom is scrawled right next to the exact quote from the work in question.

Thus stands the problem for both students and teachers for the Kindle DX.

According to a recent article from USA Today and follow-up in, the college students at Princeton (although well equipped to embrace the new technology) grew frustrated with a few simple functions that were lacking.  Stated simply, the Kindle DX has no ability to highlight, no ability to use different colors to differentiate underlined text, no way to scrawl simple notes in a margin (only typed on a keypad), no easy way to maneuver through the work to underlined text, no way to skim or flip randomly through a work, no way to mark text via “page” number, no way to keep multiple texts open at the same time, and no real system for organizing typed annotation.

In short, although this product is perfect for simple reading, the students at Princeton weren’t convinced it was a good scholarly aid.

This device needs to make things easier, not more frustrating, for students trying to annotate and, further, for students following along in class when the professor simply asks them to “turn to page 154.”  Michael Koenig, director of operations at Virginia’s Darden School of Business who also ran a Kindle DX study, said, “It’s just not as flexible or nimble as having your paper notes or your laptop right there, . . . not quite ready for prime time.”

Still, others called it a “first-generation product” with lots of potential.  At least 15% of students loved the device, citing perfection for students on-the-go as well as the “green” aspect of using zero paper products.

For me, unless the descendants of the new Kindle come with a stylus and different color options, I think I’ll pass on this technology for everything except the simple reading of a text.  However, that isn’t to say that these improvements aren’t already hanging in the balance . . . .