Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Bookless Libraries Are Going to Be a Thing

Most people probably haven't heard, but Bexar County, Texas made waves in the Library and Information Science world (which happens to be my world) this week when they announced plans to go ahead with a bookless library. You can read about it all over the place, but the article I read is here.

I know an awful lot of my colleagues at TPL would throw a fit at the very notion. For starters, many of them are still attached to the dead trees and don't want to give them up. Many of them (though far from all) are also embarrassingly technologically limited and could barely operate an e-reader for themselves, let alone help the public with digital loans across a variety of continually evolving platforms.

Personally, I bought a Kindle a couple of years ago (3G Kindle with keyboard). I love it; the battery lasts forever, it can hold a million books, and it's lightweight and durable. When TPL eliminated staff exemptions from fines, it essentially ended my time reading dead tree books, since I'm apparently incapable of returning things on time. That's fine, as I said I like reading on my Kindle better anyway. In general, you will have a hard time finding someone more progressive than myself when it comes to embracing new technologies and abandoning those that are obsolete.

There are a lot of straw man or generally weak arguments against bookless libraries that are embraced by those who I think are mostly scared of the technology shift. The biggest is that not everyone has ereaders. Many libraries are already combating this issue by simply loaning ereaders. eReaders can easily be found for $50-70, and volume discounts would presumably push the cost to libraries down even further. Compared to many hardcover books, that cost is nominal.

However, there are several big, legitimate issues for libraries considering going bookless. Bexar County presumably doesn't have any traditional libraries, so they might not notice the losses, but for organizations like TPL the losses would be felt and I suspect the customer base would scream bloody murder. While I might prefer my ereader, I respect the fact that some people still prefer the experience offered by dead tree books, and not just because they're scared of the new technology. That is their prerogative, and so TPL should continue to serve their needs.

In some cases I even agree with them. There are some instances where ereaders simply can't come close to replicating the experience offered by dead tree books, particularly any materials including visual mediums, such as children's picture books. Full tablets can often do a much better job, though still not always as good as the real book, not to mention typically at a higher hardware cost and often are more complicated to operate and support.

Which raises a whole other issue: support. Bookless libraries require constantly up to date hardware and software to ensure compatibility. For a larger library system, this will require a massive investment in manpower and infrastructre to IT departments. Furthermore, front-line staff would not only need to be trained to support the infrastructure, they would also need to be continuously retrained as the hardware and software are rapidly updated. The cost of all that training will be high.

All that said, I still see bookless libraries becoming a thing in Toronto. I think they could be particularly valuable in downtown Toronto, where the smaller physical footprint might result in substantial cost savings or allow TPL to operate locations in places they couldn't have considered before. Branches also tend to be densely packed downtown, meaning users who need physical books don't necessarily have far to travel to find a traditional library.

Over the next few years I think we're going to see more of the barriers fall, and bookless libraries spring up all over North America. They're going to be a thing, and it's really only a matter of time before they become a Toronto thing too.

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