Communications Update: A Library without Physical Books – The Future is Here?

As I put down my eBook reader to write this blog it has become apparent that we are seeing a dramatic change in the way we publicly share knowledge. I download eBooks from my library as well as from online eBook stores. But I don’t take out an eBook reader and return it after two weeks.

But in Bexar County, San Antonio, Texas, that’s the plan in the works – to open a library without physical books this fall. Called Biblio Tech, the library would be located in an under-served area of the county. Sounds strange but maybe not. Other U.S. cities have made similar attempts. In 2002, Tucson, Arizona opened a bookless library but five years later, because of customer requests, they added physical books. A 2011 proposal to build a similar facility in Newport Beach, California, ended when public outcry resulted in the project’s cancellation.

Publishing and books are changing. Of that there is no doubt. I recently wrote a blog on the evolution of textbooks in which I described how e-Textbooks because of the cost of academic publishing, represent a significant alteration in the way information of this type is provided. That’s because textbooks in post-secondary education can individually cost hundreds of dollars.

That may explain why San Antonio s home to an academic bookless library at the University of Texas which opened in 2010 and is winning accolades from students. The proposed public library, however, unlike its academic cousin will carry a limited number of titles all available to library visitors who will be able to check them out loaded on an eBook reader. Biblio Tech initially plans to have 100 eReaders available with 10,000 titles to choose from. eReaders can be checked out for two weeks and will time out and go dead if not returned. The Biblio Tech will also feature onsite computers, study areas and meeting rooms.

It will be interesting to see if bookless has staying power or like in Tucson, library members will eventually ask for physical books as well. As an avid user of my local library branch, I enjoy all of the resources that facility has which include computers, audiobooks, films on DVD, CDs, and thousands of physical books all organized and classified by subject area. And my library gives me the option of being able to go online and reserve books by author and title search when they are not available at my local branch. These then get delivered to the branch and I get notified by email, drive over and pick up my selection. I have even downloaded eBooks from the library to my Kobo eReader and my Samsung tablet. How much more convenient and accessible can a library be?

I just don’t see Biblio Tech as a long-term success. Certainly a novelty for the short term but checking out an eBook reader? How different is that from checking out a physical book?



Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...


  • Niccolo5

    ((I just don’t see Biblio Tech as a long-term success. Certainly a novelty for the short term but checking out an eBook reader? How different is that from checking out a physical book?))

    I share your skepticism, but probably for different reasons. The huge advantage of Biblio Tech over physical books is that small low-budget lending libraries can immediately offer a huge range of titles, regardless of scant demand. But the idea of checking out preprogrammed e-book readers seems sort of goofy. The idea must be to protect publishers’ profits by trying to sell e-downloads to libraries at nearly the same price as physical books. In principle only one reader at a time can read a library book.

    I think it’s unsustainable because “any book worth reading is probably worth owning.” I own some twenty thick scientists and engineers’ handbooks. They were all costly to buy and none are very portable due to excessive size and weight. It would be silly to check out e-book reader versions from a library, that is unless the files are permanently licensed and keyed to my particular e-reader. I’d happily pay $20 for an e-version of my Van Nostrands’ desk reference, or for an e-reader version of the unabridged OED, etc. It would be very desirable to be able to easily transport and access my technical reference library in e-book form. Memory storage is so cheap, and always getting cheaper, nearly every standard reference a scientist or engineer needs could be instantly available stored inside an e-reader or laptop computer.

    Then there is the privacy issue. I don’t want to inform the civil authorities of my reading list. If I want to read, “The Anarchists’ Cookbook,” Hitler, Nietzsche, Marx, Lenin, Schopenhauer, Mao, de Sade, David Duke and James Baldwin, that’s my business not the government’s. I can walk into any major bookstore and cash purchase any physical book on the shelves and no one is the wiser. It’s unclear how I get an e-file without leaving a record of my purchase accessible to the government. For that matter the same would be the case if I check out a book at the public library.