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Is Texas's All-Digital Library Really the Future of Books?

What would Macaulay Culkin's character in "The Pagemaster" say about this?
A rendering of BiblioTech's modern feel, via Bexar County/BiblioTech

The formal notions of what constitutes a library are being readjusted, as many make predictions about what the Library Of The Future will look like. The most dramatic prediction—that physical copies will cease to exist—may never come to pass. But the shift to digital shows no sign of slowing.

A new library opened last week in Bexar County Texas called BiblioTech. It's no ordinary library: Instead of stack of books and old magazine archives, BiblioTech is a digital-only hub that has 10,000 e-books, 600 e-readers, and close to 100 computer stations. It is the digital learning center techies have long been promised.


BiblioTech's website details a few of the specifics from the $1.5 million project. According to head librarian, Ashley Eklof, the idea was conceived by Bexar County Judge Nelson W. Wolff after he read the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. Wolff collaborated with Laura Cole, a government relations aide, and they used leftover county funds to start the project.

Ten months later, the digital library was opened and now the 1.7 million residents of Bexar County (which includes San Antonio) can use BiblioTech to access e-readers and e-books, as well as computers, tablets and laptops. Library card holders will also be able to access digital works on their personal devices by linking their cards to a 3M Cloud Library app. There are already 5,000 registered members online.

The organization's mission is to provide residents "the opportunity to access technology and its applications… equipping residents of our community with necessary tools to thrive as citizens of the 21st century." Does calling digital editions "necessary tools"  imply that physical books and past ideas of the library are losing their importance?

Eklof and I spoke on the phone, and she stressed the idea that this type of library may be a new model, but it won't necessarily eradicate other types of educational centers.

"I don't think it will replace other libraries," she said. "Rather, it's a good complement. I like to think of music as a comparison. People still use CDs, mp3s and vinyl, and sometimes one form is more convenient than the others, but they all still exist and are important."


Eklof added that BiblioTech is keeping libraries "relevant" within the technological landscape of the present, implying that digital literacy and technology access is essential in today's education centers.

Regardless of whether they're digital or print, libraries' value lies in the quality and variety of their books. New distribution models have some feeling less optimistic about BiblioTech, including Sarah Houghton, director of the San Rafael Public Library. The creator of the blog Librarian in Black, a website that focuses on library sciences in the digital age, Houghton is known for her technological expertise. She agreed with Eklof that this type of library won't lead to the fall of print-centered institutions, but voiced other concerns about BiblioTech.

"Libraries can't access 99 percent of what's out there in digital format," Houghton told me. "We can't license that much and when we can, the publisher charge us 10 to 20 percent more for the e-books than they would charge consumers. It will take over five years until libraries can even access what the average e-book consumer can access now."

Houghton compared BiblioTech to having a Netflix subscription with access to only 10 movies. She added that a library's purpose is to "provide information and entertainment. This library does that—and it is a library—but it's an extraordinarily limited one. [Bexar County] is either oblivious to or ignoring the fact that their catalog is limiting to consumers."


Motherboard's Meghan Neal recently explored the idea of what the library of tomorrow would look like, writing that librarians in digital-focused libraries could become "search gurus, computer experts up to speed on the latest technology that can help cut through all the internet noise and find legit information online. A Dewey decimal system for domains."

While Eklof agreed that this electronic guide prediction could be a true future, she believes that many residents of Bexar County still think of the librarians as a resource in a variety of contexts, be it for students requiring research assistance or elderly patrons who need help learning how to download e-books.

Even though there are a variety of ways to learn these skills online, BiblioTech noticed in its first week open that many still wanted the face-to-face interactions when it comes to being taught how to use technology and receive book recommendations. The librarians are essential for BiblioTech to function properly and meet the needs of its community—at least for the time being.

It's easy to imagine human, sentient librarians getting replaced by computer systems once the Bexar community becomes accustomed to the digital education space, but I can't imagine bookbots being the only employees at the center. There's something about a physical person with individual taste recommending a book that a robot or collaborative filtering system will never replace. As best-selling author Seth Godin described in an article looking at the future of libraries:


The librarian isn't a clerk who happens to work at a library. A librarian is a data hound, a guide, a sherpa, and a teacher. The librarian is the interface between reams of data and the untrained but motivated user.

Anyone can get book recommendations via Amazon, but people will still ask for personalized recommendation as long as BiblioTech has a physical space. Ignoring the staff would be like going into a record shop and asking for the wi-fi password so I can access my Pandora account to get a recommendation.

Librarians are university-educated employees and they can spark discovery in a human manner that the internet can't properly match, due to such precarious factors as taste and the random connections that come from face-to-face conversation.

Internet recommendation models are improving by the day, but even artificial intelligence cuts out components that dictate taste, such as personal history and experience. Filter bubbles continue to curb the range of digital recommendation systems. Therefore, librarians are still needed even in a digital-only library. Plus, there will still need to be someone who programs the bookbots and manages such systems and catalogs.

When I worked as a librarian's aid, I noticed that our largest patron demographic was elderly people and young children accompanied by their parents. Digital natives will not need to be taught how to use tablets or download e-books in the future, but older generations will continue to need assistance. BiblioTech plans on offering classes and lectures (some of them via Skype) to ensure that all individuals will be able to access of the library's tools and resources.


Several librarians, including Eklof and Houghton, even noticed that older people are drawn to digital readers and e-books. Most libraries have sections dedicated to large-print text to aid people with poor eyesight, but the options are often limited. E-books can change the size of text, and offer a chance for people with ailing vision to have a wider catalog. Maybe digital libraries will be the choice of the elderly, as young people pirate copies of, say, The Bleeding Edge off torrents and use their friends' Times online subscription.

Still, it would not be unfair to imagine BiblioTech as a tech-rental service, rather than a book-rental service. After all, no one is renting books from the library—they're renting the vehicle for reading those books. Many people will use BiblioTech without ever stepping foot in the center.

Regardless of what people are physically renting, Eklof imagines it as both a new form of the library and "third space"—a peaceful territory that is a place for people to learn and relax outside of the home or office. She told me that many people have spent hours at the center, reading from tablets on couches, playing games on the computers, and gathering together for e-book clubs.

"People can connect to our resources in a variety of ways," Eklof said. "They can join the book club in person, or contribute to it from home. It's all a matter of how you choose to use our services."


The library even has future plans to offer its digital catalog to anyone in the country and become a national information resource. This would be a huge change for information access, as members outside of Bexar would have to pay an annual fee to become a member, which combats the familiar notion of a state-funded library as a free service open to anyone.

Even with new sources of revenue, Houghton's points about licensing are valid. It's expensive to expand a digital collection, especially as there's as yet not corollary to a used book market. Annual costs are predicted to be around $690,000, and the location's 10,000 titles will only be expanded once the effectiveness of the library becomes clear.

For one, digital titles aren't as efficient as they could be, as current e-book licensing models mirror real life: a single e-book can only be checked out by one person at a time. Until licensing deals are reworked to utilize the unlimited reproducibility of e-books, online traffic jams for those hoping to be the first to access a new title will hamper user adoption, without the ease of finding a replacement title offered by browsing a physical library. BiblioTech's vision is impressive though, and is not far off from one of Google's grander projects like Scholar or Art Project.​

We all have our personal interpretation of what a library should look like, but I bet our thoughts aren't far from each other. Every adult and millennial (hopefully) remembers being a child and picking a C.S. Lewis or Tolkien book from dust-covered stacks (before a nice, bespectacled townie stamped the hard-cover and offered a recommendation for your next favorite book.

This nostalgia makes me want to go to my university's library today, even though it has 12 floors, thousands of patrons studying at once, and several new media centers. It's a lot different from my hometown's library, but I still see that they share (most) of the same values.

BiblioTech is shooting for an altogether different experience. Wolff was once quoted saying, "think of [BiblioTech] as an Apple store," which does not inspire much confidence in my hopes that a digital library could maintain the values of print-focused spaces. But I don't expect the new medium will totally eradicate the other. Traditional libraries are both a house of culture and a figure in culture themselves, an academic beating heart that are hard to imagine as being anything but consistent throughout time and space.​