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?