News this month of the first bookless public library will come as little surprise to many in the public system, or beyond. That this bookless library is situated in the Lone Star State brings to mind the well-worn slogan ‘Nowhere but Texas’. The first 100% digital public library system in the United States is the inspiration, not of a librarian, but of a lawyer, County Judge Nelson Wolff, who says he was inspired to create a digitally native library while reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs.
Judge Wolff says the library will look like an Apple Store, though the architect’s drawing at our disposal reminds me more of an old-fashioned internet café. Why should we be surprised that the ad hoc internet cafés of ten years ago have become models for branches of public libraries? If your main experience of knowledge retrieval is an internet café, is it not obvious that’s the way to go for libraries? This is fine, even if it is the perspective of a tech-head, not a librarian. Some would say that a bookless library is an inevitable outcome of the digital world. Some of us would say that the whole web world we now inhabit is a bookless library, that it happened ten or twenty years ago.
A disturbing trend in the public system in Australia today is the downgrading of available shelf book titles, both in quality and variety. There is even an attitude amongst some library planners that a public library can be neatly divided into two sections: fiction and non-fiction. If user demand for the latest fiction drives decision-making, then non-fiction, and even older forms of fiction, will suffer in acquisitions. Translate this thinking to the e-book world of downloads in an all-digital library and we soon have a scenario where libraries are failing their constituencies by not giving the borrowers a broad choice of literatures. User statistics are one thing, but a meaningful set of numbers for me consist of 813 and 823, the two numbers out of one hundred that Dewey ascribes for fiction in English.
This threat to the plurality of our reading interests and potentials is behind Bill Henson’s complaint about Melbourne public libraries, addressed on this blog last year. When Henson says second hand bookshops are the new local libraries, one of the things I think he is saying is that in those shops he is offered surprises and new choices that he was used to making in his public libraries, but that the streamlined non-fiction sections of these libraries no longer supply. Henson is a highly educated reader with expectations, but then he became that way partly through the serendipitous wonderland of the libraries of his youth. One would think that the librarian’s job is to create the same expectations amongst its users now.
Interestingly, County Judge Wolff of Bexar County in Texas continues by saying that “this system won't be a replacement for the County's City library system, but an enhancement to it.” And in many ways this is the worldview that ought to be informing the decision-making of planners in our libraries, whether in the public or academic or generalist fields. It has to be assumed though that the Texas bookless depository has been established in response to a perceived need.
Various issues come to mind at the prospect of more bookless libraries. Exactly what sort of long-term cost savings are being made in a bookless library? What kind of reader satisfaction is found in such an environment? And how can we calculate that satisfaction? What kind of acquisitions policy is at work? Is the turnover of titles going to be the same as the one-year rule that states the book is removed if it hasn’t been borrowed? Are all books text-only? What happened to illustrated books? Is the public library shirking its responsibility to be giving the public a broad and eclectic collection?
Automation has driven the agenda for years now. The agenda is where the funds are, which is why we have an outcome where County Judge Wolff told the San Antonio Express News that “the library system plans for several locations, starting with a first one in the fall of 2013 on the south side of the county.” And the report continues, “They plan to save money by using buildings which are already owned by Bexar County, and have estimated that beginning costs are around $250,000 to secure the first 10,000 titles for the library.” Digital libraries, or at least library departments, have been running for years, but public libraries both here and in the United States and elsewhere have had to work to keep up, mainly because they depend on public funding. Perhaps this is why now, when attention focuses on bookless libraries or predominant e-book fiction libraries, that the money talks. Suddenly the divide between fiction and everything else becomes an argument for the new technology over the old, e-books in preference to the book, an e-library rather than a public library with a plurality of materials. Thus the San Antonio Express News claims, “Several other cities have announced — and then aborted — plans to go fully digital. Still, the potential cost-savings for digital-only libraries in the long run should see more cities following suit in the future.”
All of this raises anew a very old question too: what is a librarian? If the task of a librarian is only to manage the arrangements for loaning e-books, what kind of relationship does such a person have with the borrowers? Is the librarian’s role of introducing readers to new literature simply sidelined? Will libraries consisting almost solely of the latest fiction in e-form leave us with a poverty of knowledge and awareness? Is this sort of thinking really being driven by the myth that it’s all just on the internet? And if so, is it not the job of librarians to go back to first principles and start showing people what a book actually is? Are we going to head in the direction of reintroducing the next generation of readers to the contents of all those books in our libraries? Are we going to have to show readers how to read, especially if they are resistant to anything non-digital?