San Antonio’s Bexar County will soon have an answer for a generation of readers more comfortable in front of a computer screen than a printed page: a library full of PCs, laptops, tablets, e-readers -- and not one physical book.
A bookless library may seem like a contradiction, but according to Laura Cole, Bexar County's government relations aide, the project -- dubbed BiblioTech -- will actually offer the most logical solution to a problem the San Antonio public library system is dealing with: population growth.
“We’ve had really explosive growth in unincorporated areas of the county, and that’s been putting greater distances between the branch libraries our residents,” Cole said. “We realized the delivery of digital books is expanding, and if the county were to start its own library, it would make more sense to do it digitally.”
The first of its kind
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff got some of the inspiration for BiblioTech, which is scheduled to open August 1, from reading Walter Isaacson's “Steve Jobs” biography. And the Apple Store-like qualities apparent in a rendering of the proposed $1.5-million space (pictured), with its long, gadget-topped work benches, are undeniable.
A 4,800-square-foot county-owned building on San Antonio's south side will house this new haven for tech-savvy bibliophiles, which will be one of the country’s first bookless public libraries. Cole said that, in addition to computer stations, laptops and tablets that patrons can use onsite, Bibliotech will initially offer for outside circulation about 165 e-readers, including enhanced models for kids -- which support features like animation -- and models that offer text-to-voice translation for the visually impaired.
“So people who don’t have their own e-reader, laptop, tablet, smartphone, they can also take advantage,” Cole said. “We want to make this completely accessible.”
The process of checking out a book at this bookless library will be somewhat similar to that used at traditional libraries. BiblioTech will use a library card system to authenticate its patrons, who -- at least at first -- will have a collection of about 10,000 e-book titles to choose from. Once a user checks out an e-book, Cole explained, he’ll have two to three weeks to read it before it simply disappears off his e-reader.
For local residents who avoid the library because it’s too much trouble to travel to and from the nearest branch, the convenience of BiblioTech could be game-changing. Those who have their own e-readers won’t even have to leave their homes to check out books and return them.
Users who check out e-readers, though, will of course have to bring them back, or they’ll find themselves with useless devices on their hands. “If they don’t return an e-reader, we have the capability of literally turning it into a brick and deactivating it, so it’s valueless,” Cole said.
The right timing
The county plans to add to the library’s e-book collection annually and offer on-site educational programming, particularly for seniors, who may not be as comfortable using technology.
Cole said that people from all over the world have shown interest in BiblioTech, although some locals seem wary of a world without dusty tomes.
“I think people are a little bit reticent about giving up their books,” she said. “We’re not asking them to give up their books. The San Antonio public library is always going to be available. This is just a new way for people to access reading and learning, and it allows us the opportunity to do something for our community as well.”
A recent Philadelphia Inquirer article points out libraries -- including one in Tucson, Arizona -- that have tried to go paperless in the past, and failed. But Cole said officials in Bexar County are feeling good about BiblioTech’s chance right now.
“This is something that the county has looked at for six or seven years,” she said. “Now seems to be the right time because the e-book industry has taken off in the last three or four year and there are more resources available to support this kind of endeavor, with things like e-readers and tablets.”