Content vs. Container (The Library As a Whole Edition)

For those of you who recall the “content vs. container” discussions of recent memory around eBooks, that was just small potatoes to what is being reported online these days. Why argue whether a book is really a book if it is online or an eReader or written on a grain of sand when you could be engaged in a meta discussion on the “library as an institution” scale? Why limit ourselves to arguing over one type of typical library material when it could be expanded to, oh, the identity of the library itself?

Exhibit A is a “no books” school library in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. School Library Journal had an article about this private school covering grades 7-12 that emptied out its library in favor of collaborative spaces. Here’s what happened to the print collection:

Before distributing the library’s print stacks to local centers and donation sites in Africa, says Skinner, she had teachers comb through the physical books and pull anything they wanted for their curriculums into classrooms. Then she allocated additional funding towards purchasing new and used fiction books in physical form, since her students, Skinner says, actually prefer to read this genre on the printed page like many adults do. These titles, too, went into classrooms.

So, there are books in the school but they are distributed throughout the classrooms. The article doesn’t mention if there is any system in place to track the books from the classroom shelves nor if there is a way for students to be able to ‘borrow’ books from other classrooms (either fiction or non-fiction). The principal of the school does point out that they rely heavily on the multitude of local public and academic libraries for books that (presumably) they don’t have on campus. It’s not clear as to whether this is a partnership with those libraries or an unfortunate parasitic relationship upon the publicly funded local library system and public universities. I wouldn’t want to guess how taxpayers and alumni would feel about their local library or campus library being used as a book resource center for a $12,000 a year private school, but I think that is a whole other can of worms.

“Bookless” school libraries aren’t new after the Cushing Academy removed a majority of their print collection in favor of collaborative work spaces and digital resources and eBooks back in 2009. They retained some of their print collection but shifted their focus towards providing literature and textbooks in any format. As of time of publication, it would appear that they have not reverted on their decision.

Exhibit B is “bookless” public library in Bexar County, Texas. It is the start of a countywide system outside of San Antonio and, well, if you ever wondered what kind of library a judge would build, you now have your answer. From the MySanAntonio website:

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff is an unabashed book lover with 1,000 first editions in his private collection, but even he sees the writing on the wall.

Paper books have lost their allure, and future generations may have little use for them, Wolff contends.

So when he embarked on a mission to create a countywide library system, he decided it should be bookless from the start.

Today, after months of planning, Wolff and other county leaders will announce plans to launch the nation’s first bookless public library system, BiblioTech, with a prototype location on the South Side opening in the fall.

If you want to get an idea what it looks like, go into an Apple store,” Wolff said.

Yeah, that’s right: an Apple store. It’s not a terrible vision considering how Apple is noted for its in-store customer service. But nothing in that store is inviting me to get so comfortable that I should pull up a chair and take some time to check my email and social media stuff. Granted, the purpose of the store is to draw you in, take your money, and then toss you again, so it may just take inspiration and not implementation from the Apple store kind of model.

But wait! There’s more:

Inspired while reading Apple founder Steve Jobs’ biography, Wolff said he envisions several bookless libraries around the county, including in far-flung suburbs.

“It’s not a replacement for the (city) library system, it’s an enhancement,” Wolff said.

“People are always going to want books, but we won’t be doing that in ours,” Wolff said.

I presuming he means physical books because there is a passage further down the article that mentions eBooks.

Commissioners will decide whether to seek a contractor to complete the design of the library and another to provide e-book titles; hire staff; and create a seven-member advisory board.

At least $250,000 will be needed to gain access to the first 10,000 book titles, Wolff said. Costs for design and construction aren’t set, but the county will save by using a county-owned building.

We wanted to find a low-cost, effective way to bring reading and learning to the county and also focus on the change in the world of technology,” Wolff said. “It will help people learn,” he said.

As to the first statement I highlighted, I’ll be very curious where they will purchases titles at an average of $25 a pop. Given that Douglas County just spent $40,000 for 10,000 titles from Smashwords, I don’t think it’s an impossible prospect. By the time this experimental branch is built, who knows where eBooks will be in the library universe. However, given its current trajectory, I think their number is rather optimistic. 

As to the second statement, it has been a long time since I’ve seen the terms “low cost” and “world of technology” appear in the same sentence especially in light of the Apple store mention. Something just doesn’t seem right about that at all to me. Perhaps the Devil is in the details, but that’s going to be one hell of a Devil (pun somewhat intended).

So, with these recent examples in mind, it brings us around to the question: what makes a library a library? Is it the contents of the collection or the purpose of the mission? This might be the Super Bowl of navel gazing for the librarian profession, but it may well be worth re-examining in an introspective fashion.

If I accept the concepts offered by St. Louis Park, Cushing, and Bexar County, then my living room could be designated as a library. It has a desk, a internet connected computer, Wi-Fi access, a bookcases with a small selection of books, DVDs, and game materials, a couch (otherwise known as a social collaborative space), and a table with four chairs (a group collaboration area). It is “staffed” by a librarian, yours truly, and despite being a relatively small apartment I still get questions as to where the bathroom is.  What more would I have to do? Could I post hours and then apply to join my library system? The original library for my town started in someone’s apartment back in the late 1800s, so it wouldn’t be anything too strange when you consider the history. But is it a library?

If I reject those concepts of a library, then what is required to satisfy that ideal? How big of a collection is needed? And of what materials, either physical or digital? I presume it would be contextual to the type of library and community it seeks to serve, but even that gets mired very quickly. Or is it centered around reading and literacy? Or research and knowledge seeking skills?

What do you think?

9 thoughts on “Content vs. Container (The Library As a Whole Edition)

  1. I think it is interesting, but I don’t want local studies being left in the cold, and it is not mentioned at all. New local studies material may be all online (although it actually still isn’t), and older material may have some rights issues about going totally online. I think libraries could do exciting (almost) 100% online local studies, but it needs more creative thought given to that area. There are some great possibilities about content creation and co-creation in all of this which are given no coverage in the publicity about this library service (unless I missed reading the fine print).

    The Apple store idea of the highly skilled staff should not be different in a library – so highly skilled assistance in all areas and services is great, but the focus in the articles seems to be on collections not the staff element to match the Apple store approach and they are both needed. Plus what if someone comes to the library to read a book which is only available on paper – will there be an interlibrary loan, or will the person be told it is not available?

    I think the all online model has promise, but these other areas need to be looked at.

  2. This is only tangentially an answer to the question you pose, but it’s something I think about every time I see an article about “bookless” school libraries. I’m the school librarian at an independent school for students with learning disabilities (mostly dyslexia and ADD/ADHD) and a lot of my students start their time here being VERY intimidated by the library–because the library is where serious students go, and many of them do not think of themselves as serious students.

    The longer I’ve worked here the more I’ve realized how much my students’ perception of themselves as learners is connected to their use of the library. Even though the vast majority of resources students need for research are online (I have a small collection, but a lot of database subscriptions), students still ask to come to the library during class to work on their research. We have a computer lab as well (full of Apple products), but students don’t go there when they want to be (or think of themselves as) serious students. They come to the library. They bring their parents by on family weekend and tell them they study in the library as a way of telling their parents that they’re serious students.

    I have nothing beyond anecdotal experience to back this up, but I think that “books and mortar” libraries have a cultural weight that we need to be aware of.

    While I think there are still things I could do to my library to “modernize” it or make it better fit the needs of students, I don’t know if students would have the same perception of the library or themselves as learners if the library didn’t have books. The mission matters, the container matters, the contents matter–and, in many ways, are interdependent.

    • That’s a very interesting point regarding perception (that the students treat the library as such for serious research). I never really thought that it could hold that kind of air, but perhaps I’ve just been looking at it from the inside angle.

      Thank you for your comment.

  3. I always find notions of bookless libraries interesting because I have had many experiences that indicate that that’s not which people (at least people I’ve encountered), want at all. This is also anecdotal, but I work part-time at a very high tech University that had traditionally been geared toward business. We recently got a series of grants that, of course, needed to be spent, but couldn’t be used on databases or anything with an annual fee. So we sunk a lot of the money into eBooks.

    The student population is obviously young and very, very tech-savvy, but they want nothing to do with these eBooks. Any time I would be helping a student browse the catalog and we stumbled across one, the student would pass it by and get the physical book, even if it was older.

    I’m speaking in absolutes not because I don’t remember all of these encounters, but because it happened every single time. One girl even told me that she didn’t want an eBook because “I look at screens all day.”

    These students also frequently print off every article they use for an assignment, which shocked me because I never even did that when I was in college or grad school. So, is this just a strange case of students at one university who still like paper, or is this the way it actually is if we bother to ask?

    • Thank you for sharing your story. My curiosity is what they would find out in Bexar County if they surveyed the population. I would hope that they wouldn’t build something that is a glorified internet cafe or something along those lines, but something that addresses a community need. IF they have a high e-book reading population and see the need for providing internet access, then go for it. Otherwise, they are just spinning their wheels on a high priced idea that some guy reading a Steve Jobs biography thought was nifty.

  4. This morning we had a pow-wow regarding the future of our small burb library. Our council questions our future role in light of digital. I had just read/seen a picture of the TX proposal and it weighed heavy in my mind on how it will all shake out. In this meeting, I couldn’t help but wonder if in 30-40yrs, people will be clamoring for the old hardbound like many of us do for used 33s. Libraries remain a gathering place for the community, however, will that community feel us necessary in 20 years..? Will people feel a face-to-face non-Siri storytime ‘old school’? I hope you continue to explore this topic!

  5. From what I’ve read about the library, it seems they want to try and provide computer and internet access for the lower income parts of the city (especially the south side). The San Antonio library doesn’t cover all parts of Bexar County, which leaves some users traveling a bit farther. If the physical collection of the SA library didn’t exist, I am not sure of the success of this bookless system.

    As to your question about what makes a library, I tend to focus on access to information and space. I think that is what libraries have always been: a community resource specific to access to information, whether books or digitial content (and also, skilled profressionals to navigate the information). There are a lot of different ways a library can serve a community, but to concentrate on physical books, I think, is to lose focus on what the purpose of a library is. That being said, many people still use and prefer physical representations, and commenters mentioned above, and the perception of a library is something I hadn’t considered before. If there wer no books, what would users think?

  6. I don’t understand why a “bookless” library is better than the average public library in existence today. I actually think that the absence of print material will be more of a disservice to patrons than an “enhancement”, given that since it will still be connected to a larger system, they’re likely going to have to fulfill hold requests on those physical items.

    As for defining a library – I would say it is anywhere librarians practice librarianship. Think about roving librarians on campuses or other public spaces there to provide help and direct people toward reliable resources. It’s incredibly, broad, sure, but if our mission is to be the Tenzig Norgays of the digital/information landscape, then we need a broad definition.

  7. As a high school librarian, I cringe at the prospect of totally bookless libraries. Through our very heavy reliance on online databases and the web, we are already teaching our students to be information browsers rather than in-depth researchers. Heaven forbid they should have to read a 400 page biography when two pages from Gale’s Biography in Context and a Wikipedia entry will do — or critically examine a variety of in-depth print sources to determine which best meets their research needs. Let’s just spoon feed them digital encyclopedia entries instead. And, any bookless public library is going to end up spending most of its budget on fiction to meet public demand, a comprehensive non-fiction collection be damned. I dread the day that I will no longer be able to browse the shelves at random and delight in making an unknown author’s acquaintance. Sigh.

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