In October of last year I published a post on a study conducted by Pew Research Center on the reading and library habits of those aged 16-29. In that post, (linked here) I cited part of the study that covered how this age group reads their books, e.g. in a digital, audio or the old fashioned way by holding a REAL book in their hands. I questioned the future of our public libraries and how they might have to conform to keep up with modern technology. I asked, “what might our libraries look like, 10, 15 or 25 years from now?” I offered a possible answer to that question. Guess what? Some of my assumptions are coming to pass and I’m definitely mixed in my feelings about it. See what you think.
NPR reports that in San Antonio, Texas there are plans to open a “digital-only” library in the fall of this year. The 1.5 million dollar project will be housed in an existing building covering a little less than 5,000 sq. ft. of space. Here’s a drawing of the proposed facility.
If this looks like an Apple Store to you that’s no coincidence. A proponent of the planned “BiblioTech”, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, believes that the benefits of converting to an all-digital library are:
“The library is a chance to expand the scope of opportunities for people to learn technology,” Wolff explains. “The world is changing.”
He contends that the $1.5 million project will be cost-effective, as it’ll be located in an existing county-owned building and available to many under served communities where residents may not have access to at-home computers.
In fact, improving technological access to lower-income areas of the predominantly Hispanic county is what led to this bookless endeavor. Many of the unincorporated areas of the county, he says, lack public libraries.
Sarah Houghton, director of the San Rafael Public Library in California, has only one word about the project: “premature.” She relays the following, relevant facts:
“First, some people simply prefer physical media — they don’t want to read on a device,” Houghton says.
Second, she points to the issue of the digital divide. Those who aren’t necessarily technologically literate may need extra over-the-shoulder help with the devices in a way that would require a large operation and, consequently, a big budget.
“A huge element is training staff, and that’s even presuming that the library can afford enough of these devices to meet the demand,” Houghton explains.
And the biggest issue? Most content is simply not available digitally to license and purchase.
“So your selection of best-sellers and popular media just went down the toilet because 99 percent of that is not available to libraries digitally,” she says.
Many publishers don’t license to libraries, and those willing to do business often have what Houghton considers outlandish terms — too expensive or unrealistic for a library’s allowance.
So here’s my initial thoughts and, as I mentioned, they are mixed:
I do like the clean lines of the design and being a lover of technology I do believe everyone who wants to should have access to it. I’m 100% in agreement that those living in low income communities with little educational resources must have more tools at their disposal to keep up with their peers and the advancement of technology. I’m just not sure that this proposed library is the best way to go about it at this time. BUT,
I’d like to see one of these e-libraries housed in a low income community public school, in addition to, not as a replacement for the school’s existing library, if there is one! There, everything could be monitored and studied to see if the cost of licensing books, the cost of keeping the databases up-to-date, hardware maintenance costs, staffing, etc. makes economic sense. Additionally, we would know if students grades improve by having the best of technology available to them. Schools already have teachers and support staff trained to use the latest technology so the cost of teaching and any additional training is one less thing to worry about since much of it is already figured into the budget. Of course, the cost of the equipment, maintenance and the building costs would have to be added.
Technology is a wonderful thing but it is very expensive. Perhaps our friends at Apple would like to donate the hardware in this experimental e-library and get in on the ground floor of what may be, in the not so distant future, the only available way we will read a book.
I hope I’m wrong…
Personally, I like a bound book. I do have an e-reader and I do use it on occasion, but for me there’s just something magical about turning the pages of a book. My history with books goes back more than a few decades and yet I know I must evolve with the times because as that great Bob Dylan song goes, “the times they are a-changin”.
Some questions for you. If you have some time, I’d love to get your feedback:
- How do you feel about the general trends in technology? Are you right in step, falling behind or have no interest in technology and wish everyone would just get a life and spend more time reading a real book than using an e-reader or smart phone?
- Do you think it’s only the older generations that might oppose the move to all digital libraries? What’s your take on this digital library concept?
- Do you think we could strike a happy balance by having books, e-readers and computers housed together as they currently are but perhaps with a real upgrade on the technology side? I know at my public library the computers are ancient and they definitely need an upgrade. Preferably to iMacs & iPads :)