What’s a library without books? Some bookless libraries

empty bookshelves. library without booksI read about a library without books sometime in the late 1990s, I don’t remember what college or university in New York  had no room in its library for a computer lab.

So it opened one in another nearby building it owned and called it a branch library.


Because it was staffed with librarians.

In principle, it’s not the presence of a book collection that defines a library. A library simply requires librarians.

In recent years, however, libraries have experimented with bookless libraries based on digital technology. That is, they have books, just not printed books.

How is that likely to work out?  I’m not much impressed by what I’ve read.

Academic libraries without books

Florida Polytechnic University library without books

Florida Polytechnic University library

The University of Texas at San Antonio opened its Applied Engineering and Technology library in 2010.

It claims it’s the first completely bookless academic library. It follows the lead of mostly bookless libraries at Kansas State University (2000) Stanford University (2009).

Besides a growing collection of e-books, it boasts thousands of e-journal titles.

With a capacity for 80 patrons, it offers ten desktop computers, five large LCD screens, a printer, a scanner, group study niches, and group study rooms. If students or faculty need books for anything, they can go to the main library on campus.

Here’s a library without books with no other campus library.

Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland began its existence in 2014. Its library has no printed books. Its director, Dr. Kathryn Miller, observed, “Since we are a new university, we had the option to open totally digital. The digital resources are part of the university’s mission.”

A freshman student greeted the all-digital library with enthusiasm. “When you get a print book you spend time reading to find what you need, but with digital, you can go straight in. That this much information is available at our fingertips is something other libraries can’t provide.”

That sentiment doesn’t bode well for literacy.

It’s possible to use the index in a print book to cherry pick obviously useful parts and ignore the rest. I don’t find it any easier to do so with an e-book.

Whoever can’t be bothered to spend time reading won’t find everything they need. It doesn’t matter if they fail to find it in print or electronically. How is anyone even supposed to know what information they need unless they read a lot?

The best and most useful information, especially in STEM subjects, resides in the expensive proprietary databases libraries subscribe to. Most offer full-text access to the articles.

Both of these libraries are dedicated to STEM fields. Information becomes obsolete quickly in those fields, so an all-digital library makes sense. A library without books would not work in other disciplines.

Look what happened when a school library tried it.

A school library without books

not a library without books

Libraries have to get rid of some books to make room for others. But all of them?

In 2009, the Cushing Academy, a prep school in Ashburnham, Massachusetts near Boston decided to get rid of all its books.

It donated or discarded the entire 20,000-volume collection.

It claimed that all the content would remain, but in digital form After all, printed books appeared to be an obsolete technology.

Through Amazon’s Kindle platform, it promised access to millions of books. Ebooks would replace printed books as surely as the codex replaces scrolls.

It removed not only the stacks, but the reference desk. In their place, it spent tens of thousands of dollars on laptop-friendly carrels and large flat-screen TVs.

Five years later, it began to reinstate printed books. What went wrong?

  • The headmaster apparently made the decision without consulting with the faculty. That’s a good way to damage working relationships.
  • Not all the books some faculty members used in the classroom are available digitally. Never in history has any new technology been applied to all the content available in older technologies.
  • Not everyone can easily use a Kindle. It’s not just a generational thing. Some students need print, especially the ones who have trouble reading in the first place.
  • The library’s social and outreach programs suffer without physical books. How can a library observe Banned Book Week if it has banned all its books?

Public libraries without books

The Tucson-Pima County Public Library System opened a branch in a neighborhood where most residents lacked computer access.

At first, the branch offered only computer access. It remained bookless for about six years, but the community asked for a full-service library. Now that branch has added books and other aspects of a physical collection to the computers.

Newport Beach, California considered ditching the books from a branch library in 2011. Public outcry soon forced abandonment of the plan.

BiblioTech, San Antonio

BiblioTech library without books

BiblioTech, San Antonio, Texas

Judge Nelson Wolff of Bexar County, Texas, decided to try something different.

The library system of the county seat, San Antonio, has 29 branches, but the city has a policy not to annex territory.

The rest of Bexar County, a large area, has no library system of its own.

The county pays a large subsidy to the city so its residents can use the city library system. Wolff thought the city asked for too much money and decided to establish a new library, without books.

Wolff got input from UTSA’s Applied Engineering and Technology library, but didn’t include anyone from public libraries on his team, “since I thought they were stuck in the past.”

The new bookless library, called BiblotTech, started in September 2013 in a remodeled building on the city’s south side, an economically poor area where about 70% of residents lacked Internet access. Ten years earlier, its citizens had protested because it lacked a bookstore.

Since then, BiblioTech has opened another all-digital branch in a west-side low-income housing project. It plans a third branch in a poor area on the east side.

It seems odd to me that an idea for expanding library access to the county has so far had a physical presence only in the city. It does, however, help bridge the digital divide between rich and poor–a necessary service.

Can it work elsewhere?

Do Space, Omaha

Do Space, library without books

Do Space, Omaha, Nebraska

The idea seems to be successful in San Antonio, and a comparable library without books called Do Space opened in 2015 in Omaha, Nebraska.

Do Space is a non-profit community center. It offers 219 desktop computers, a printing station with 3D printers and a 3D scanner, a laser cutter, comfortable lounge chairs, private conference rooms fitted with touch screen technology, and free WiFi.

Metropolitan Community College offers classes and educational programs on the second floor.

Although it calls itself a technology library, Do Space is not part of the Omaha Public Library. It is operated by Community Information Trust. Its Executive Director, Rebecca Stavick, used to work at a library branch, where people had to wait as much as an hour to use a computer.

Like much of the rest of the country, Omaha has a digital divide. Many people have no computer at home. That coupled with so much competition for library computers made it difficult for them.

Do Space, therefore, fills a need. Like a library, it offers nearly all services except printing free of charge. Those services include standard library programs like workshops, classes, and clubs for all ages.

People can not only use computer technology there, they can learn how to use it and troubleshoot problems with their own devices. They can check out equipment like tablets and laptops, but only for use in the building.

I have not found if its staff includes traditional reference librarians. I hope so.

In any case, Do Space exists because Omaha’s branch libraries didn’t have enough computers. Anyone who uses Do Space still has access to full-service libraries

Some thoughts on libraries without books

The digital revolution has changed not only the way we live, but the way we think. But it has not changed us in quite the ways non-library users imagine.

Libraries long ago ceased to be primarily a collection of books. Librarians long ago ceased to be primarily custodians of books. They have long been on the cutting edge of adopting new technologies.

Neighborhood libraries serve as community centers. People use libraries not only for education and, let’s not forget, entertainment. Library classes and workshops also serve patrons’ social needs.

From preschoolers to doctoral candidates, libraries provide support for education. Doctoral candidates can benefit from a wide array of digital resources. Preschoolers ought to learn to read from printed books. For one thing, manipulating pages provides important practice in fine motor skills.

Browsing hyperlinks doesn’t offer the same opportunity for serendipity as browsing shelves of physical books.

When someone needs information, librarians help them find it. And they are just as good at finding in online as in print. Much information is available only in print. Much other information is accessible only through the hundreds of databases libraries subscribe to.

Experiments like BiblioTech and Do Space perform a great service by making computer technology available to people who otherwise couldn’t afford it. But both San Antonio and Omaha have full-service libraries.

Authors of some of the articles I read for this post seem to have a dream that all-digital libraries will keep libraries open by leaving such obsolete technologies as printed books behind. For anyone who understands what full-service libraries provide, that’s not a dream, but a nightmare.

A college library without books? Yep, it’s a thing / Brooke Metz, USA Today College. September 1, 2014
Bexar set to turn the page on idea of books in libraries / John W. Gonzolez, My San Antonio. January 11, 2013
Cushing Academy library goes bookless / David Abel and Chris Girard, boston.com. [2009]
Reintroducing printed books to the Cushing Academy library / Mark Melchior. Massachusetts Library Association. October 15, 2016
San Antonio’s bookless library remains unique / Lamont Wood, Crain’s San Antonio. November 21, 2016
This library without books might be the library of the future / Danielle Corcione, Upworthy. no date
UTSA opens nation’s first bookless library on a university campus / Christi Fish, Phx Friends of UA SIRLS. September 15, 2010

Photo credits:
Empty library stacks. Some rights reserved by brewbooks
Florida Poly U Library. Source unknown
Bookshelves. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
BiblioTech. Hidalgo Foundation
Do Space. Metropolitan Community College, Omaha Nebraska

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