A public library with no books? Librarians who look like Apple Store employees? Glistening iMacs and iPads awaiting patrons on sleek desks, with even more tablets ready to be checked out by anyone with a library card? If this is the library of the future, the future is already here. This is BiblioTech in Bexar County, San Antonio Texas, the country’s first and only bookless public library. The design makes sense in today’s shaky economic times and with the ever-present possibility of libraries having to shut down: BiblioTech buys its 10,000-title digital collection at the same cost as physical books, but millions were saved in architectural expenses because the library didn’t need to be structured to hold the weight of printed books and bookshelves.
Plans are underway for bookless libraries in other parts of the country. And with the continued popularity of e-books, tablets and dedicated e-readers, it seems that bookshelves in homes and apartments filled with printed books will become less and less common. Many who love to read when they travel have marveled at being able to “carry” scores of books on their iPads and Kindles to be read on the airplane and by the pool. And what about the ability to instantly purchase a book in seconds without stepping outside your home? That can be compellingly convenient in this time of instant gratification. No, you don’t need to trek anymore to your local record store to buy music and you don’t need to do that with books either.
But while we hear about the demise of brick-and-mortar bookstores and witness this happening in our own communities due to e-books and online sales, many still find it imperative (and fun!) to browse through a bookstore. And there’s also the curious phenomenon of new bookstores continuing to open despite the gloom and doom. In the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, just last year Diesel Books opened a new branch in Marin County and a new independent bookstore called Village House of Books debuted in Los Gatos. Many established independent bookstores (BooksInc., Book Passage, etc.) here are also still going strong. In the town that I call home, we have no fewer than five independent bookstores serving a population of about 15,000.
So what does the future hold? Will books and bookstores disappear like vinyl, cassettes, CDs and record stores? I’m not sure. I’d like to hope that print books and e-books, and online bookstores and neighborhood bookshops can co-exist in some way. Just the other day I was reading a novel on my iPad that I’m planning to teach in an upcoming course. But I also bought the paper copy and switched over to reading that version. I’ll probably mark it up with handwritten notes, which is easier to accomplish on the paper book. But another thing I found that I especially enjoyed was placing a bookmark in the book and monitoring my progress of how close I was to finishing. Somehow eyeballing that physical bookmark was much more satisfying than reading “43%, 161 out of 371 pages” at the bottom of the Kindle page.
Do you think that a bookless world is in our future?