Bookless libraries?

No doubt you’ve seen the provocative headlines regarding Bexar County, Texas and its planned “bookless public  library,”  the BiblioTech. Librarians across the country must be scratching their heads, since so many e-books are not available to libraries, pricing for others is much higher than for consumer editions and beyond library budgets, and lending restrictions lead to long wait times for patrons.

Mashable reports, “County officials say the BiblioTech venture will remove barriers to library access.”  I’m not even sure what this means, but it seems the officials may be unaware of the fact that their new library won’t be able to offer all the books a traditional library would. If that’s not enough, it seems a pretty big barrier to access if you need to either check out one of the library’s e-readers or have one of your own to read a book, especially since the population of Bexar County is 1,756,153 and the BiblioTech only plans to have 100-150 e-readers to circulate (media reports vary).

Even if reports of increases in tablet and e-reader ownership are accurate, that leaves hundreds of thousands of people with no way to read the BiblioTech’s digital books. Every person who enters a traditional library can access most of the collection without any special technology. THAT is barrier-free access to information.

It turns out the new all digital library is the brainchild of a judge, not a librarian. Judge Wolff says it will resemble an Apple store. Besides e-readers and the digital book collection, the BiblioTech will have meeting space and study rooms and the San Antonio Express-News reports the new library will have “personnel available to help library users with homework or other research.” Personnel? Will there be librarians?

I guess it’s pretty clear that I am skeptical. A public library that has no books seems to me to be a community download center, not a library. I’m sure some of you will disagree, and I’d like to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment and chime in!

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Do Libraries Sap Attention Spans?

My son’s freshman class at college read The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr this summer. My husband is reading it now. Last night he read aloud: “until recently the library was an oasis of bookish tranquility” but now, Carr dramatizes, “The predominant sound in the modern library is the tapping of keys, not the turning of pages.” The implication that by offering internet access, libraries are contributing to the “shallowing” of our minds struck me as fairly improbable.

At the public library where I work, I recently chatted with an English teacher looking for a good book to take her mind off work. She’s the second teacher to tell me this summer that her students can’t read as much as when she began teaching. She assigns shorter classics so they won’t get frustrated, and because she’s learned that they won’t finish longer works. But she says they are reading, and she noted that how and what is probably less important than she once thought. As she put it, she sees teaching English as helping  kids become competent, not cramming them full of particular titles.

The teacher and I agreed someone reading an entire New York Times article on a smart phone (like my son) is getting the same depth as someone reading the print edition (more if like me, that person is skimming over morning coffee before rushing off to start the day).  So aren’t libraries broadening access to reading by catering to both print and online readers?

As Carr notes, library internet service is very popular. But many of the same people using the computers at my library are checking out books. And those who don’t use the computers are probably not Luddites, who are really fairly rare, but rather people who can afford computers and internet service at home. According to the ALA’s 2012 State of America’s Libraries report, libraries across the country have seen circulation increase, as my library has. From what I can see, people who have nowhere else to use the internet are finding their way into the stacks while they’re at the library, and not the other way around.

As for that bookish tranquility? The “shushing” era of librarianship was over long before I was in library school, twenty years ago. Libraries are community centers, and we’ve always been places where information is freely available to all. If the internet and its keyboard clicks are a part of that open access, so be it. Reading, whether on a screen or a page, is still very much alive in our hopped-up, attention-challenged, 24 hour news cycle world. It has faced other challenges in its history, as have libraries, and I think both will adapt and survive.

Irregular librarians?

I’ve recently changed jobs. I’m working at a busy public library in the small city where I live, hence I’m familiar to the staff and many patrons already. So far I really enjoy it; public library work is so varied and diverse, and you never know what might come up.

For example, at the end of my first week of training a patron who knows me came to the reference desk, said hello, and told me she had a request but she’d wait for the “regular librarians.” I was at the desk with another member of the staff who as been at the library less than a year. We both assured her we could help, but she just smiled and said she’d wait.

This person didn’t associate us with her previous library questions; we broke her expected pattern of experience, so I guess we seemed “irregular.” Which reminded me that in some ways, libraries are like doctors’ offices. Some patients are satisfied seeing a nurse for a cold, or a physician’s assistant, others insist on the doctor, and not that new young one, but the person they’ve seen for years.

Rest assured, at my library anyway, everyone at the reference desk has been trained to answer questions, to access information on a moment’s notice, to utilize the library’s collection and the dozens of tools at our fingertips in databases and other online tools. We might not always find an answer immediately but we are all capable and ready to give it our best. Experience is wonderful, but good training means even someone new is ready to help, and I imagine it’s that way at your library too. So step right up, and don’t be afraid to ask!