Exploring the Bookless Library

Libraries hold a specific place in communities, but even more importantly they hold a certain identity as well. Even among people who have reported that they do not use their local libraries, surveys have shown that those same respondents have overwhelmingly acknowledged that libraries are vital to the health and structure of a community and of society as a whole.

But as libraries adapt to the changing publishing and reading climates, what patrons know to be the definition of a library is shifting. More and more libraries are going “bookless,” opting for digital editions of books, movies, music, and more; still others are not even hosting their own files of those digital editions, opting instead to be a portal through which their patrons can access streamed content.

One of the only bookless public libraries in the US opened in early 2014, the Bexar County Public Library in San Antonio, Texas. While universities around the country have offered digital-only academic libraries for some time, Bexar County’s BiblioTech library is the only open public library to not offer a single printed book. The response has been one of amazement from other libraries who are interested in moving to this model of e-readers and streaming, but not all of the patrons have been as welcoming of the idea of having to read on a screen or device.

While there have been concerns voiced by critics of the model, those concerns largely stem from the price of digital content compared to more traditional editions, the function of libraries as a warehouse for archived content, and the budgetary decisions that are made based on patron attendance in their physical libraries. But as society begins to understand and adopt digital content as more of the norm and less of a World’s Fair-type oddity, these bookless libraries are finding never before used methods of reaching patrons where they are.

One of the chief concerns surrounding digital libraries is how those institutions are expected to stock their virtual shelves. Through the companies that have grown to offer digital content, like OverDrive, 3M, and PressReader, libraries are actually more equipped to offer their patrons a wider variety of content than they could under print editions. They’re also more readily capable of providing up-to-date and new release content, as many of these companies work to instantly supply brand-new releases in both book and periodical titles. One example of a completely re-envisioned library for the 21st century is the Taylor Family Digital Library in Canada. They provide the latest in technology; however, this library also maintains extensive archives and rare collections, an art gallery, and a host of other tools to the meet research and entertainment needs of its patrons.

Some institutions have found that their patrons and community demographic weren’t quite ready for the digital revolution. The Tucson-Pima Public Library opened a bookless branch as far back as 2002, but quickly added print content to their shelves due to patron demand. Of course, at that time, libraries weren’t equipped to loan ebooks on dedicated or patron-owned devices, as the e-reader was four years away and the iPad was still eight years away. As consumer reading and purchasing activity has now moved forward to include portable device technology, the time is more appropriate for all-digital expansion.

However libraries choose to offer content to their communities, there is one truth concerning the future of these institutions. If they fail to meet their patrons’ needs and adapt to a changing landscape, the already alarming budgets will continue to shrink and the doors will continue to close. By evolving into what readers need from their libraries, they will continue to be a relevant factor in society.

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