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Could Bookless Libraries Revolutionize Access for the Poor?

For a long time, you could divide the library patrons of San Antonio, Texas, into two categories -- the haves and the have nots.

Inside the city limits, there was a robust library system with 26 locations and a bookmobile. Outside, in the unincorporated suburbs of Bexar County, there was no public library. For many years, there wasn't even a book store.

Blame this on a fluke of funding. The city's library budget could only be spent on projects inside the city. This was fine, until the population of Bexar County exploded. Between 2000 and 2012, the county's population jumped from 1.4 million to 1.8 million people; and a third of those new arrivals ended up in the suburbs.

According to the San Antonio Express News:

In 2000, 10 percent of the county's population lived in unincorporated areas, said Tina Smith-Dean of the county's Planning and Resource Management Department. “Now it's close to 15 percent,” she said, and by 2017, it's expected to be 18 percent.

"Patrons were getting farther and farther away from facilities," says Laura Cole, Bexar County's special projects coordinator. In response, the county pulled together funds for a sleek $1.5 million facility in the unincorporated part of the county. The 4,989-squre-foot library dubbed BiblioTech, slated to open this fall, will feature 150 e-readers (some of which patrons can check out for two weeks), 50 computer stations, 25 laptops, and 25 tablets. The project will run digital literacy courses, partner with local schools, and stay open late to ensure maximum access. Bexar's leaders have compared the project, in look and function, to an Apple store.
 
It will have everything -- except printed books. Instead, patrons will be able to "check out" material from their computers or smart phones, even if they aren't on the premises. So not only is this facility located closer to where much of the county now lives, but you don't even need to go there to take advantage of it.
 
For Bexar, a digital library was the most affordable way to address the egregious library access problems. "It seems like a really obvious kind of cost-effective solution," Coles says. "We wanted to create a true technology resource."
 


A rendering of Bexar County's new library. Courtesy of Bexar County

Bexar sees their bookless library as a model for other cities and counties, especially those where some neighborhoods have plentiful access to reading material -- and others simply don't.

And more often than not, those neighborhoods are under-served in other ways too. Lower income communities lag way behind when it comes to public library resources. Their libraries tend to stay open for fewer hours and offer fewer services. In Philadelphia, says Susan B. Neuman, a professor at the University of Michigan who studies these issues, libraries in poor neighborhoods had just two computers for every 100 children.

This is particularly unfortunate, because libraries provide vital services. Forty-four percent of Americans living below the poverty level access e-mail and the Web via their local public library, according to a 2009 report from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

But it's not clear whether digital libraries are the solution. Reading an e-book or using a computer requires a different skill set than reading a book; Neuman wonders if some people won't be able to use BiblioTech's myriad new resources to meet their needs. And American Library Association President Maureen Sullivan says licensing digital books is often more expensive then buything a paper copy.

She also wonders if we don't lose something when we abandon books altogether. "I think there's some value to the ability to hold a book in one's hand," Sullivan says, particularly when it comes to picture books for children. "There's something very special about the tactical experience, a personal connection that happens there."

But digital libraries do come with some advantages -- for one, they require less space. Collections can be put together in a matter of weeks, not months. And Sullivan says more and more readers are seeking out e-books. "People will come into the library and request a book, and they'll also request the format they want it in," she says. "It's really important for us to understand these developments and how people want to use them."

For now, Cole says the county will wait and see whether the community wants more brick-and-mortar technology centers or a deeper collection of digital material that can be accessed from anywhere in the cloud. "This is a pilot," she says. "We could find people are really, really utilizing the digital library more than we anticipated, or vice versa. Once we see how people use these spaces, we'll adapt our plans."

Top image: Amy Johansson /Shutterstock.com

Amanda Erickson is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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