February 9, 2013 – Library That Holds No Books: Texas County Plans to Open Facility That Will Offer Users Only Digital Editions (artist’s rendition above and below). A Texas county is set this fall to open one of the nation’s first entirely digital public libraries, an information storehouse where people will be able to check out books only by downloading them to their own devices or borrowing electronic readers.
The ambitious plan by Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, is being closely watched by skeptical librarians. Some warn digital versions of many popular titles aren’t available to libraries, and are often more expensive than paper versions. Others say similar experiments have ended with the public pushing to preserve printed books.
Nelson Wolff, Bexar County’s top elected official, is a bibliophile with about 1,000 first editions in his private collection; he doesn’t own an electronic reader. But he said he concluded—prompted in part by reading a biography of Apple Inc. AAPL +2.97%co-founder Steve Jobs—that technology was changing too fast to make investing in print wise.
He suggested going bookless in Bexar, which hasn’t had a county library system but decided to open digital facilities to serve residents in unincorporated areas with scant library coverage. “I am a guy who likes that physical book in his hand,” Mr. Wolff said. “But I also realize I am a bit of a fossil.”
The trial location, opening in a satellite government office on San Antonio’s south side in the fall, will have a selection of about 10,000 titles, and 150 e-readers for patrons to check out, including 50 designed for children. The library will allow users to access books remotely, and will feature 25 laptops and 25 tablets for use on site, as well as 50 desktop computers. It will also have its own coffee house.
Staffers will help patrons with technical questions, but there will be no designated research assistants. County officials, who estimate startup costs at $1.5 million, believe overall costs will be lower than running traditional libraries, and are considering additional locations.
The library plan hasn’t stirred much criticism from citizens, but it has generated competitive tensions with San Antonio officials. The city already provides library services to residents of unincorporated areas, at a cost to the county of nearly $4 million a year, though officials concede that the area the new library will cover is some distance from the nearest city-library locations and in need of additional services.
“We’re not ready to go in the direction of a so-called bookless library,” said Ramiro Salazar, San Antonio Public Library‘s director, who added he was surprised to learn of the county’s plans through the local newspaper. “Our experience shows that demand for printed books continues to exist and is in fact growing.”
The Master of Disaster