A Library Without Books

A Library Without Books Or Shelves

A Guardian report about plans to open the first digital-only library in the US raises key questions about the broader purpose of a library:

The city of San Antonio, Texas, recently announced that the first fully digital public library in the US will open in Bexar County later this year: a library that won't contain a single book. The facility, part of a planned state-wide bookless system called BiblioTech, is modelled on an Apple store rather than a traditional library, but it will retain all the important features: more than 100 e-readers available to borrow, with more than 10,000 ebooks - and visitors can bring their own devices, too.

Ebooks and libraries don't always mix well. Many libraries still mark a borrowed ebook as "out" (and therefore unavailable to other readers) just like a paper book, despite the electronic copy's infinite reproducibility. Others insist readers visit the actual building to download and "check out" ebooks. In 2011, HarperCollins tried to stipulate that its ebooks could only be borrowed 26 times. After this, the file would self-destruct, in accordance with the belief that this is the average lifespan of a worn-and-torn paper lending copy.

There are obvious problems with applying the traditional library model to ebooks; but there are also very good reasons for retaining libraries. They are not just places to read books, they are public spaces providing a range of services. These are essential to people on lower incomes, beneficial to all, and they are adjusting to different roles. Amsterdam's Central Library, a magnificent building, the largest of its kind in Europe, opened in 2007, and emphasises the library as a space to work, think and connect. Books, while plentiful, could be secondary here: as much work is done by visitors online - spread across floor after floor of well-lit and well-connected desks and comfortable chairs - as with the collection.

But there is no equivalent of public space online, which is too susceptible to corporate and technocratic control, and so the physical institution remains essential. The bookless library is not a contradiction in terms, but a continuation of the library's core purpose, providing access to knowledge and information, and a public statement of the value of that access.