Bookless libraries

I just read an article titled “Texas library offers glimpse of bookless future” about a library that has no paper-based books. Instead, it has rows of iMacs and tablets which lenders can take out with books loaded on to them. This may horrify book lovers who love the feel of paper and all the other stuff they argue makes the experience of reading paper books better than ebooks. I think this is the beginning of a future trend both because ebooks are so much easier to move around and manage and for a reason that doesn’t frequently come up in these sorts of conversations:

Head librarian Ashley Elkholf came from a traditional Wisconsin high school library and recalled the scourges of her old job: items put on the wrong shelf and hopelessly lost in the stacks, pages thoughtlessly ripped out of books, and items that went unreturned by patrons who were unfazed by measly fines and lax enforcement.

But in the nearly four months since BiblioTech opened, Elkholf has yet to lend out one of her pricey tablets and never see it again. The space is also more economical than traditional libraries despite the technology: BiblioTech purchases its 10,000-title digital collection for the same price as physical copies, but the county saved millions on architecture because the building’s design didn’t need to accommodate printed books.

“If you have bookshelves, you have to structure the building so it can hold all of that weight,” Elkholf said. “Books are heavy, if you’ve ever had one fall on your foot.”

I don’t see this being the primary library model in the near future, though. Sure, there will probably always be a need for a facility like BiblioTech but as more and more devices capable of handling ebooks become more widely available, I think libraries will become services rather than institutions where you maintain an account and can check books out to read on your personal devices.

That future is pretty much here already. Kindle users can lend books for limited time periods (this may be possible with other services too, I haven’t checked). Books will then be removed from your device once your time is up. No worries about late fees or returns.

The one aspect of an ebook future that concerns me is how books become ephemeral content that can be whisked away from us at a provider’s whim. At least with paper books we own the physical copy and that can’t just be remotely removed if Amazon or some other provider feels we shouldn’t have the book any longer.

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