The Hunt Library at North Carolina State University isn’t your typical library. The main floor looks more like a sleek Apple showroom and instead of a Genius Bar, there’s an Ask Me alcove, where you can get help on everything from laptops to flash drives. Built with state funds and private donations, you can find not just books and research papers, but also media rooms, video game collections and even a 3-D printing lab to create plastic models. And it’s open to the public. In this digital age, it comes as no surprise that libraries are forging new avenues of their own.
“There’s a lot of talk about how libraries should change, but very few ideas of how they should be shaped,” said Vaughn Tan, a member of the Harvard’s University Library project. “Every library should figure out what they want to be and just do that.” While technology has hurt libraries, it is also helping them keep apace, as more people pick up e-readers instead of physical books. Seeing people huddle over gadgets instead of the card catalog is now a common sight in libraries all over the states. Food and coffee vendors are allowed, while stern librarians hushing you into submission are absent.
If you thought of libraries as a dying relic, think again. People still visit them to use computers, often to look for work or beef up their tech skills. Small businesses and community organizations also use study rooms for office and meeting spaces. According to a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation report, nearly half of Americans living below the poverty line access e-mail and the Web from libraries, highlighting how they’re still an important staple in the community.
Bexar County’s library in San Antonio has no books. The nearly 5,000-square foot $1.5 million compound, dubbed the “BiblioTech,” which opens this fall, will have 50 computer stations, along with 150 e-readers, 25 laptops and 25 tablets for residents to check out. It also plans to team up with local schools and give digital literacy courses to lure visitors. The all-digital library was a practical solution to San Antonio’s problem—a library system that served the city population well, but left the growing county population in the dark. The no-book solution was the most affordable way to service Bexar County’s residents. Leaning on digital helped BiblioTech pull together assets and collection quickly, rather than spend time and resources building up a physical book inventory.
The idea of abandoning books isn’t without controversy. Reading an e-book or using a computer requires a different skill set than reading a novel and using pen and paper.
Filling up a library with e-books isn’t simple, either. The ALA and the big six publishers are locked in a battle over the borrowing of e-books. Fearing technology could commoditize it—like music—publishers are intent to find a business model that gives it the most control, and the highest margins. That means some publishers flat-out refuse to sell e-books to libraries at any price, while those that do charge steep prices. For libraries, supplying e-books can cost up to three times more than physical books.
Still, cities and counties are considering a bookless model, especially those in under-served neighborhoods. Digital libraries require less space, collections of research material are easier to pull together and consumers are looking for e-books.
Books won’t fade, but with so many other mediums to explore, libraries, especially those with technology, can enhance skills. “It is a most exciting time for libraries,” says Maureen Sullivan, president of the American Library Association. “Books are still important, but libraries are also delivering content and experiences to their communities in new, very different and exciting ways.”