Paperless public libraries switch to digital


A public library without any printed books is opening this summer

The phrase "bookless libraries" arrives with a dull, oxymoronic thud, enough to get the blood of any bibliophile boiling.

It's the sort of thud made in the 1980s by doomed reports promising a "paperless office". Anyone who remembers that much-mocked slogan might well shrug off this latest idea as overheated punditry.

Or perhaps they should think again, as the world's first completely paperless public library is scheduled to open this summer in Bexar County, Texas, in the United States.

Bexar County's so-called BiblioTech is a low-cost project with big ambitions. Its first branch will be in a relatively poor district on the city of San Antonio's South Side.

It will have 100 e-readers on loan, and dozens of screens where the public will be able to browse, study, and learn digital skills. However it's likely most users will access BiblioTech's initial holding of 10,000 digital titles from the comfort of their homes, way out in the Texas hinterland.

It will be a truly bookless library - although that is not a phrase much to the liking of BiblioTech's project co-ordinator, Laura Cole. She prefers the description "digital library" - after all, there will be books there, but in digital form.

'Not even a bookstore...'

"For us this was just an obvious solution to a growing problem," she says.

That problem was "explosive" population growth around San Antonio, in suburbs and satellite towns way outside the city limits.

Bookless library The BiblioTech library in San Antonio, Texas, will offer 10,000 digital titles

"We've had to look to how we provide services to these unincorporated areas," she said.

"While the city does a beautiful job in providing public libraries, these can only easily be used by people living there".

San Antonio's book-rich public libraries will be unaffected by the project.

Bexar County, by contrast, never had a public library service. "I think we're at an advantage there," Ms Cole said. "They've never had a library with books - there's not even a bookstore here."

This sets it apart from earlier bookless library experiments at Newport Beach, California, and Tucson, Arizona - which both reverted to offering real as well as e-books, by public demand.

As well as offering digital books to 1.7m people, the $1.5m BiblioTech project has a big community education remit. It will partner with local schools and run digital literacy courses and will stay open late into the evenings.

The iLibrary

The project's instigator, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, sees it as a pilot for a county-wide scheme. Other sources of funding will be sought to build up the services.

Interestingly, Judge Wolff is a keen collector of first editions, the bibliophile ushering in the bookless future: "But the world is changing and this is the best, most effective way to bring services to our community."

Start Quote

Nelson Wolff

The world is changing and this is the best, most effective way to bring services to our community”

End Quote Nelson Wolff Bexar County

Judge Wolff has cited Apple founder Steve Jobs as inspiration for the BiblioTech.

But the project has also gained impetus from the success of the University of Texas San Antonio (UTSA) bookless engineering school library which opened three years ago, the first paperless academic library. UTSA's director of libraries Dr Krisellen Maloney has worked with the BiblioTech team and sits on its advisory board.

Outside Texas, bookless libraries have also made most ground in the academic sector, with the swiftest change in science, maths and engineering libraries.

The first such facility in the UK is likely to be at Imperial College, London, which last year announced that over 98% of its journal collections were digital, and that it had stopped buying print textbooks.

Even so, it was still paying around £4m per year in subscriptions to publishers, even after concerted efforts to negotiate better digital deals for universities.

Touching history

It's clear that bookless libraries are not a cheaper option for cash strapped colleges and local authorities. Producing digital versions of text books can be even more costly, given that users will expect more regular updating and interactive features.

New York Public Library The New York Public Library is also increasingly lending e-books

There are some libraries which will never go bookless, because their collections contain books that are important historical artefacts in themselves.

Although many of these rare texts are being digitised under schemes such as that run by Google, these books as physical objects remain essential resources for researchers.

Christopher Platt, director of collections and circulation at the New York Public Library (NYPL), argued that accessing a digital version of a book was sometimes not enough.

"People travel from all over the world to our library, not just to access an item, but to touch it and feel it to get a sense of it that speaks to the overall importance of the work," he said. "This is not sentimentality, it's an important fact."

However the NYPL is also embracing the digital world with enthusiasm and is deeply committed to offering digital material.

Last year the library made 880,000 e-book loans - a fivefold increase over 2008, Mr Platt said. The library has 91 branches around the city, he added: "If you look at e-book loans as a virtual branch, it would regularly be number two or three in terms of monthly usage."

On the shelf

Contrary to some reports, the NYPL is not reducing its holdings of books - although some 1.5 million books in the stacks of its famous Central Library building on 42nd Street in Manhattan will be relocated in underground vaults as part of a refurbishment scheme beginning this year.

Illustrated manuscript Books in their physical form are also important for researchers

The space will be used to create a "spectacular" new public library , but it will not be bookless. "In fact, far more books will be visible than ever in the past," Mr Platt said.

But bookless does not mean cheap. Publishers were charging libraries up to five times the normal hardback price for an e-book of a popular title, he said. And certain types of book - illustrated children's titles, how-to manuals - simply did not work as well as e-books, especially when some library e-readers were still text-only.

This was just one of many reasons, he felt, that bookless libraries would not be sweeping the board just yet.

A major issue was to obtain guarantees of a consistently good reader experience across all platforms and technologies - something which NYPL, along with 200 other big libraries across north America, and increasingly elsewhere, is working towards in a new coalition,

Library closures

In the UK, however, the major issue was not so much bookless libraries but library-less boroughs. Authors have been particularly active in campaigns to resist funding cuts that are leading to public library closures.

British Library The British Library is bringing together printed books and digital archives

Children's author Alan Gibbons is a passionate believer in the role of libraries, especially school libraries, but he's also a keen user of the panoply of "e" and "i" prefixed devices.

But he has misgivings about the notion of a bookless library. "We have to manage the change intelligently. The danger is that reading becomes utterly atomised". Otherwise there could be the "obliteration of minority and mid-list authors".

He argues that the library space and the librarian are crucial elements. Books could be replaced by e-readers, but virtual space could not replace library buildings. "The only issue for me is how new readers are made, and I don't see that happening in social networks."

Working in international schools in China and Thailand, Mr Gibbons noted that even in the most elite schools where very child was given an iPad, the school library, stocked with real books, was seen as an essential resource.

Christopher Platt at New York Public Library has another take on the bookless future: "It's still early game. We've been 100 years getting the print stuff right, so it could be a while before we get the e-stuff right."

Do you think a library is still a library without printed books? What would be lost with an all digital library instead of books on bookshelves?

I work in a library. I love books. I have two full bookshelves at home and can't imagine being without them. Browsing books, flicking through pages, is a pleasure, pressing a few buttons and the odd click is just not the same!

Della, West Sussex

An all digital library would miss the distinctive smell of old paper. With paperless books you would also, perhaps for the better, miss the history of the particular book and its users. The odd scribble here, the page corner folded there.


The bookless library in Texas will have 100 ebook readers. So a maximum of 100 people will be able to read its books at any one time, unless they own a computer and an internet connection in their own home. That appears to be more limited than existing "paper libraries". It would seem to be a library for those who have financial resources to afford internet connectivity and associated equipment, and excludes the poorer members of society. This seems to be at odds with the earlier vision of public libraries, that intended to bring books and other information resources to a wider audience, particularly those on lower incomes who could otherwise not afford to buy the books and newspapers themselves. I'd suggest this is a regressive step, socially speaking.

Mark, Milton Keynes

I have worked in libraries for 15 years and I think people should think less about libraries as buildings in which to house books and more as places to access and disseminate information and knowledge. To me, if you want hard copy, paper books you should visit a book shop or plan a trip to an archive. Libraries have always battled with space and storage issues and a paperless library would allow users to access information quickly at their convenience. Library users with additional needs can also have their digital materials 'tailored' to suit their own requirements e.g. large print, audio (spoken word), translation etc. I find the prospect an exciting one and more inclusive for the population as a whole.

Sigi, Liskeard

You need ebooks and paper in equal quantities. My kindle doesn't smell the same as my real books.

Katherine, London

Having lived in the Midwestern US for a decade, this strikes me as a great idea. It sounds as though users will be able to check out digital books over the Internet, rather than driving a distance to the library. We enjoy that convenience in Baltimore. For the vast distances of North America though, it will make life in the hinterlands that much more exciting. I could see it helping a schoolchild in Orkney or the Shetlands in the same way, for example.

Jim, Baltimore, US

I think a digital library is an exciting idea but should exist as an option alongside the paper library. The digital space is full of distractions, not too conducive to study. It requires a greater level of self control.

Solomon, Lagos, Nigeria

As a librarian I would be interested in the Texans' licensing arrangements for accessing e-books. This is a real stumbling block where publishers want to limit the number of 'loans' of an e-title, or the length of time e-access to a title will be permitted, while librarians think in terms of making items available as a service.

Frank, Scarborough

I think it won't be the same, first because of the smell of the books but what can happen if there is not electricity. Maybe just in develop countries this can happen faster but in third world countries it will take longer. Maybe buildings for libraries can disappear because of portability, nowadays young people prefer technology and you are able to carry it wherever you go.

Delia, Chiclayo, Peru

I don't care which sensory experience I get, paper or ebook. I do both. However, I really enjoy reading non-bestselling novels published between 1920 and 1970, as they give a great flavor of the times. Older non-fiction can be interesting, too. Most of these books will never be digitized! I've explored a couple of dozen libraries within 40 miles of my house and found those who keep more older books on the shelves. I want them to remain

Nancy, Portland, Oregon, US

I live in Bexar County and must admit it took about three years of residence to locate (physically!) my local library. While I do not live in the same part of the county as the BiblioTech, I am delighted that the architects hope to branch the e-library system out to the rest of the County. I look forward to the day I will be able to go to the library without ever leaving home!

Mai, San Antonio, Texas

As a technophile, I think there's a huge amount of potential for e-books to make reading a far more convenient activity for just about everybody, especially with a new generation for whom this technology is already going to be fairly widespread. I'm entirely certain there's going to be change eventually (my own university is putting more emphasis on digitised textbooks), but it's going to be a gradual and experimental process. As a bibliophile, I still think books aren't going to die out for a long long time, and there's no hurry for libraries to chuck out the dead tree pulp editions in an attempt to 'modernise' themselves, especially given that plenty of people enjoy the feel of having a solid copy in your hands (although having tried an e-reader, they're remarkably fun to use). As someone who's also aware of the long term impact of this, I feel apprehensive both about the costs charged by publishing firms and the impact this will have on the fairly large portion of the population who just won't have access to e-readers to begin with, let alone those who are too young to have one and rely on trips to the library to get their fix.

Raphael, Bristol

: As an addition to paper libraries, helping to provide access where otherwise access is limited, this is a good idea. But the risk is that digital libraries completely replace paper libraries - and this misses one of the major elements of the library service, which is to provide not only information, but also discussion and community. Working as a community librarian you soon learn that people frequent libraries as much for company and support as to access knowledge and information. Reducing our understanding of 'information' to digital resources, rather than local knowledge, guidance on suitable authors and sources of information etc, is a step towards isolation. This also risks restricting access for the large proportion of library users who are elderly and in many cases less computer literate.

Hannah, Edinburgh

No, a library is not a library without printed books. Moreover, libraries are not book depositories and the invention of e-readers does not alter the need for a public space for reading, culture and edification. If you think the sole purpose of libraries is book distribution then be prepared for these faddish digital libraries to be physically dismantled or sold off and replaced by virtual (electronic-only) libraries. Then we can all sit at home downloading electronic texts and never have to look at another human being outside of working hours. What joy!

James, Galway, Ireland

Often when browsing my local library's shelves in search of a particular work, my eye has been caught by something completely different close by, which has encouraged me to read different authors and even genres, most of which have proved very enjoyable. This kind of serendipity would by more difficult when ordering E-books. Even the definition of the word is a place where books were kept.

Bill, Portsmouth

While I, like others, feel horrified at the loss of the sensory experience of reading a book (the weight of a book in the hands...the sound of the pages turning...being able to physically see how far through the book you are...), I can also see how this distaste compares to the distaste felt by vinyl lovers towards MP3s. They too have lost cover art and a sensory experience if they upgrade to this new technology. As I too am now buying fewer CDs in favour of digital music, who knows? Maybe we'll all also come round to the idea of digital books instead of physical ones - and in turn a digital library.

Bianca, Paris


More on This Story

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    I love to read...I am not a fan of science fiction though and this is what life is beginning to look & feel like to me. Browsing a used book store or sitting quietly in a library always a joy. Just the smell of books, their age or the fact that others held them in their hand like myself and loved to read. The world is just getting so technical soon it won't have feeling at all. Just beam me up!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    23. BluesBerry
    civilization will pay ... for its reliance on digital [rights]
    FTFY. What is wrong with digital is the way it's used to track and charge for access to content, leaching locally-held copy from libraries. All digital content older than a year or so should be free to copy in our national libraries. They should be colossal nodes in a P2P network.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Paperless library? Nonsense! Think paperless office...

    It will catch on in some better-off areas for ease of use, novelty value, etc. but libraries still serve a sizeable chunk of the population that do not have access to a home computer, internet or an e-reader.

    Libraries already use e-stuff to widen participation with their respective communities, so rock on with the best of both, I say.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Libraries should grow their ebook collections, especially to help with people who live in rural areas without access to a library. However, going entirely bookless isn't a good thing. Not everyone is tech smart and I've known many kindle owners who have switched back to paper out of preference. I don't become immersed in a world through a screen as well as feeling and smelling the pages of a book.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Cons (cont)
    6. If eBooks all free, how will writers be able to make a living? Wouldn't this lead to fewer new publications?

    7. Liking hard-copies often (though not always) nowt to do w/ snobbery - tactile (& smell, in old books) aspect = part of the experience.
    Like vinyl (& CDs) vs mp3s (tactile/visual/sound quality aspects vs convenience).
    Both sides have a place in a reader/listener's usage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Cons (cont)
    3. How simple are eReaders to flick back&forth through? Especially for reference books/manuals/cookery books.

    4. Hard copies can always be read during a power cut, or when batteries have run out - especially useful in countries where power is irregular.

    5. Many parts of the world have, as well as intermittent power, slow/non-existent broadband connections. Even parts of the UK...

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    1. Technical manuals/cookery books - who wants their eReader covered in engine oil/cooking oil, flour etc?
    Are there eReaders with pull-out maps/technical drawings/large colour photos of how the recipe 'should' look?

    2. Are eReaders suitable for babies/small children, able to handle rough & messy usage, in the same way as card books?

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Haven't yet used an eReader/read an eBook, but love 'real' books, so these are just my impressions:

    eBooks seem useful in many situations (convenience/travel/increased access/eco), & as 32.Respighi posted, in a few years time they'll probably be used alongside hard copies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Paper library is too far to walk. I await the day when the paperless library is as near as my laptop at my bedside. Then I can be more selective in my nonagenarian entertainments.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    31. JamesStGeorge
    The obvious way to do wider access to reading and books. No one needs in the future to pay for a book."

    And who's going to write them, if no one pays for them?

    I am happy to pay for books, because I realise that the author may have spent a year or more of his life writing the book, and it's only fair that he receives some income from it if it's any good.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    You can't skim a technical manual on a PC or flick all pages until you find something that interests you. The variability of the finger flips against the snail speed of a PC page turn. Books - priceless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    First, I'll preface this by saying I am a book lover (real books), but I am also a realist...I think that this is an empty gesture to hold onto the relevance of libraries in a society that has advanced to where they aren't useful. The only reasons to go to a library (with real or e-books) anymore is nostalgia or they dont have internet at home.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    I think this is akin to the fears for the CD when iTunes came about. Not only do people still buy CDs, but vinyl, & even the cassette tape have made a comeback. People like to 'feel' in so many different ways & downloads just don't allow that. Give it 5 years & it will just sit alongside everything else. I don't agree that should be free though, we have some wonderful writers who deserve paying

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    The obvious way to do wider access to reading and books. No one needs in the future to pay for a book. Files are free, whether greedy industries like it or not. Just a matter of time.National libraries should be on line and every book downloadable at any time as unrestricted files.No more excuses about returning books.Write your story, let people read it, easy, end of restrictions and limitations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    I am not anti-tech in any manner,but there must be a correlation between social skills declining especially at formal occasion's,and using tech in multi-areas of life,ie even with people you choose to use tech and be with someone not present,or you buy books etc online and ltd human interaction again,your phone etc is always allowed to interrupt unlike a human being would be called rude etc etc!

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Presumably, one da,y you will find tracts and copies of the Watchtower appearing on your e-reader when the Jehova's Witnesses mount a paperless mission down your street.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    From an academic point of view, this would be a great idea as the wealth of information available and ability to search would be less time consuming. From a leisure point of view, I have seen many books in my local library that are engaging before you open them (cover, size etc) and engaging when you do (Pull outs, maps, detailed diagrams etc). Time and technology move on I guess.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    I have a Kindle which I find particularly handy for when travelling however it will never replace real books for me.

    The whole joy of going to the library for me is spending ages browsing through books and finding previously untried authors. That experience just wouldn't be the same with e-books.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    I don't have enough space in 400 characters to go on about how this is wrong on so many levels. At the library, one of my favorute things to do is to nab a random book from the reference stacks and see what knowledge I'd found. Ofttimes, I don't know I'm interested until I open the book.

    Sometimes, I use an eReader, but nothing compares to the experience of hardcopy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    The main issue I have with digital is losing the ability to flick through. Clearly this is applicable to reference books if only because you can come across things you hadn't expected or were looking for. But even flicking through fiction is a delight, to read sections that get you hooked on the whole book. There is a place for digital books, but elimination of 'hard copy' would be a major loss.


Page 1 of 3


More Business stories



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.