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Libraries Go (Mostly) Bookless

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Until recently, bookless libraries were the focus of news stories on urban blight and underappreciated historic buildings with coverage emphasizing the lack of books as representative of neglect. Libraries in Minneapolis and San Antonio are hoping to change that perception, however, as they deliberately establish libraries of all-digital material, firsts for school libraries and public libraries, respectively.

It's hard to disagree that libraries signify books for a vast majority of patrons, whether they read print or e-books. While libraries across the country have successfully adopted the means for licensing and circulating e-books in addition to print, few have taken the drastic steps seen recently in Minneapolis.

A flurry of news coverage surrounded a Minneapolis school's decision to remove nearly all books from its library. At Benilde-St. Margaret's, a Catholic prep school for grades 7-12, print resources were moved out to make room for more workspace—the library is now referred to as a digital learning center, or "learning commons." Library staff will remain, and teachers will be on hand to answer questions and lead discussions.

The new learning commons offers less structure and more room for fluid movement between tables, spaces, or groups. Thanks, in part, to the school's one-to-one laptop policy, students are afforded reliable technology access and flexibility at school; the library redesign is an attempt to reflect and support this flexibility.

No public schools appear to have adopted bookless models, but the all-digital school library has been tried before, at Cushing Academy, a coed independent boarding school in Massachusetts. That school's library reduced its book collection to a quarter of its original size, prioritizing an architectural and technological redesign of the library over print acquisitions and maintenance. While not truly bookless, the new library marked a shift away from equal representation of print and digital resources. Circulating material is overwhelmingly digital, according to a profile of the library in THE Journal.

Unlike the open learning spaces adopted at Benilde-St. Margaret's and Cushing, renderings of the new library in Bexar County, Texas, show kiosk-packed rooms with computer workstations lining the walls. Officials in Bexar County, near San Antonio, announced Jan. 11 that the county will build a new library offering only digital resources. Rather than bookshelves, library space will be devoted to workspaces, computers, and workstations. The county budgeted $500,000 for land acquisition for the new library in 2011 and has identified a site and design team for the project.

Bexar County residents currently patronize the San Antonio Public Library system, and the county had paid the city an annual fee of about $3.7 million for access, according to the San Antonio Express-News. Nelson Wolff, a Bexar County judge and a leader in the push for the new facility, told the Express-News that the prospect of this fee nearly doubling was a major motivator for the county to explore new library options.

County leaders are going ahead with changes they feel will help prioritize libraries' usefulness as social or collaborative workspaces. In the new library, called BiblioTech, librarians will provide reference and reader advisory services, as well as computer help and other technical tutelage and support. Programmatic priorities may not be significantly different from those of other public libraries, as lifelong learning programs and educational opportunities are already a mainstay of library offerings in many communities.

The Bexar County Public Library is not the first of its kind in San Antonio. The Applied Engineering and Technology Library at the University of Texas at San Antonio, opened in 2010, "housed" a collection (at the time) of 425,000 e-books and 18,000 electronic journal articles, but no print material. Engineering students at UTSA may however, call in print books from elsewhere on campus via interlibrary loan.

Several other institutes of higher education have experimented with bookless library spaces or services. Beginning in 2010, Drexel University has been exploring the possibility of satellite library locations across campus, starting with a Library Learning Terrace serving a dorm- and student housing-heavy neighborhood north of the university's main campus. A large-scale plan to introduce multiple smaller "library hubs" remains in progress, but the results of a May 2012 assessment suggest that the pilot space has been successful in meeting its goals: to provide different types of workspaces within one facility to flexibly meet students' needs.

Less successful was a 2011 effort to replace the oldest library in Newport Beach, Calif., with a book- and librarian-free community center. In that proposal, patrons would have checked out books through a kiosk delivery system and communicated with librarians at other system branches by video conference. The move to build the community center was quashed following negative public response to the idea.

In a 2011 essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Marc Prensky argued for all-digital, no-print universities, saying this would make for better interconnectivity among ideas and criticism of those ideas, as well as a means of more effective dissemination of knowledge. He went so far as to suggest banning print books from university campuses and confiscating any volumes found to be in students' possessions:

We would wean students (and scholars) off the physical books of the past, just as they were once weaned off scrolls when new and more efficient technology came along.

Despite screeds like these, and headline after headline trumpeting the end of library books ("Bookless libraries" may be the new "print versus e-books"), recent moves toward bookless libraries have less to do with distaste for or need to discard books than they do with a desire to respond to existing patron habits and needs. If students and the general public already value libraries for the access to technology, community-gathering spaces, and educational and professional resources they provide, the reasoning goes, it makes sense to devote the most time, money, and space to these areas.

In this respect, bookless libraries both reflect and differ from the operating philosophy behind Maker spaces in libraries, which aim to provide a blend of community-responsive and horizon-expanding technology to spark creative exploration. In order to succeed, bookless libraries, like all libraries, must meet existing patron needs in addition to guiding them to new resources and opportunities for learning.

As Cushing library director Tom Corbett wrote in a commentary for the National Association of Independent Schools, "the library, with its balanced collection of digital databases and rows of print materials, was seen as being significantly out of balance with respect to how most information was already being consumed and processed just nine years into the new century." Corbett goes on to argue that, as "digital natives," Cushing students were more comfortable navigating e-resources than using hard copies of books and journals for research.

Lynn Bottge, the librarian at Benilde-St. Margaret's, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that the decision to replace books with e-resources ultimately came down to a matter of budgeting. While maintaining a print book collection "would have been hundreds of thousands of dollars," she said, a deal with an e-book distributor for access to 200,000 scholarly titles on a pay-per-download basis offered a more affordable option.

Should all-digital libraries develop into a trend of any magnitude, they may come to be seen as viable alternatives to the currently prevalent blend of print and online resources, though this may take some time. So far, Bexar County community leaders have responded to the library proposal with open minds at least, and enthusiasm at best, the San Antonio Express News reports. A judicious balance of innovation and practicality will be necessary should other school and public libraries wish to follow in the footsteps of these bookless facilities.

In the meantime, we can all enjoy Susan Sarandon's portrayal of a librarian whose library is about to go all-digital, in the independent film Robot & Frank. It's no Desk Set, surely, but nonetheless an interesting addition to the rather short history of library technology-driven plots in popular cinema.

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