How Do You Like Them Apples?

"Texas has seen the future of the public library, and it looks a lot like an Apple Store..." [Source]

Oh, Lord, here we go again. Bexar County, Texas's BiblioTech is being hailed as "the nation's only bookless public library" in a recent article by Paul Weber. For a moment, let's lay aside the ridiculous claim that BiblioTech is "bookless." (I'll get back to it, I promise.) Let's look instead at what it means that this particular library is digital-only. The main reasons for the shift away from mixed format resources, as is common in most public libraries today, to a digital-only environment were...well, less than convincing, at least to me. Let's check them out.

Poor lonely, special apple...


  1. Resources are limited, unless you make this shift: At least, that seems to be the implication Laura Cole makes when she notes the area's economic depression and lack of Wi-Fi for most families. Still, you are bound to run into some serious problems with this viewpoint. For one, most books and other information sources have yet to be digitized. For another, digital just doesn't work as well for studying, which puts her stated goal of increased literacy at risk; research shows that print is simply better for information retention. In addition, libraries worked out the "limited resources" thing long ago, with inter-library loans - if it exists, print or digital or microform, we can find a way to get that information to you. By moving to digital-only, you are actually limiting, not expanding, your resource base.

  2. This shift prevents mismanagement and theft of materials: The head librarian claims success because none of the tablets that users can check out have been stolen or damaged. Well, BiblioTech hasn't been open too long - give it time. My library lets patrons check out laptops, and, despite hefty fines and plenty of warnings, laptops have been returned through the book drop, or with cords and such missing, broken screens - you name it. Even should those tablets be treated well by every user, they are going to see a lot of wear-and-tear. It's inevitable. But I'm guessing the shelf-life of a tablet isn't as long as that of a print book, especially one of the library editions that are more rugged than usual. We have books on the shelf that have been here for twenty years or more - and are still circulating. What's the expected lifetime of a tablet? Five years, if you're lucky? After that long, even the best-cared-for tablet isn't going to have the software to be compatible with the latest digital offerings, I'd guess. As for theft, I'd imagine it's not too difficult to borrow a tablet full of ebooks and copy them for distribution - and you wouldn't even have to pay a fine!

  3. Books are heavy: This was probably the most confusing, in my opinion. I know there is a separate field for library architectural design - heck, there are awards for it, and some libraries are the most gorgeous places on Earth - but there are also libraries housed in donated homes and built in abandoned Walmarts. (Those, by the way, are also both beautiful libraries.) Does it really take multi-million dollar investments to shore up those locations in order to support the massive weight of the books? And does renovating an existing structure really cost that much more than building a brand-spanking-new Apple store clone? Maybe - I don't know. But it strikes me as odd, anyway.
BiblioTech might be the only "bookless" library in the nation at the moment, but it is hardly the first to try the idea out. As the article noted, other libraries have tried - and failed - to be digital-only, because people wanted books. In fact, one of the users of BiblioTech was quoted as saying, "I kind of miss the books....I don't like being on the tablets and stuff like that. It hurts my eyes."

That quote was from 19-year-old Abigail Reyes, who had come in to study for an exam, not an elderly user wandering into BiblioTech by accident, thinking it was a regular library. She also notes that she was given a quick tutorial on how to look for ebooks and check out a tablet - but are there classes available for others, who might be computer illiterate? You would hope so, given that it is in an area with little exposure to such. Are there classrooms set aside for impromptu training? Here, if someone can't use the computer, we can present them with resources in other formats; there, I guess they're out of luck, unless someone is available to teach them at the given moment. Can users schedule one-on-one instruction?

It also does not seem to be a friendly place for kids.

Rosemary Caballeo tried shopping for health insurance on a set of computers reserved for enrollment in the Affordable Care Act. Her restless 2-year-old ran around and pawed at a row of keyboards. The little girl shrieked loudly, shattering the main room's quiet. She was soon whisked outside by her father.

If Cole is seriously concerned with literacy rates, shouldn't making a welcoming environment for kids be a major consideration? There appears to be a separate section for children (you can check out their website), but what could possibly be in there, if there are no books?  More computers? Digital-only offerings provide little help for those working towards early literacy skills development. BiblioTech offers toddler reading times - do they read from tablets? Are there crafts or other manipulatives that help kids connect to the stories? How do they teach print awareness - an important concept for learning to read - without print items?

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But let's quickly get back to this "bookless" claim, because that's a pet peeve of mine. You see, we've gotten lazy with language - and librarians are just as guilty as the rest of the world. (At least, the English-speaking parts of it - I'll make no unsubstantiated claims against others languages that may have gotten it right all along.) 

What we call a book is not exactly a book. You see, a book is the work contained in the format - the story, the idea, the metaphysical entity or form, the content. Whether it is printed, digital, audio, or written in squid ink on vellum, it is the book. "Clay tablets were the first books." [Stuart A.P. Murray, The Library: An Illustrated History (New York: Skyhorse Pub., 2009), 7] Of course, books went through many different format changes - papyrus rolls and parchment scrolls included - before the introduction of the codex, sometime around the fifth century A.D. (Murray, The Library: An Illustrated History27). A codex, simplistically defined, is a book recorded in a format consisting of cut pages bound on one side and contained between two covers. Sound familiar? Over time, we've become so accustomed to reading books in codex format that we just called them "books." Now, of course, we have books in digital and audio formats (and some really nifty interactive books with video components), but we're hung up on that word "book," confusing it with "codex."

So, no, BiblioTech is not a "bookless" library, because it does, in fact, offer thousands of books - just not in the format we usually think of when we say "book." Comparing BiblioTech to regular public libraries isn't even like comparing apples to oranges - it's like comparing Red Delicious to Granny Smith.

I'll take the Granny Smith, thanks.

I'm pretty sure that's a Gala, not a Red Delicious, but you know what I'm getting at.
Specifically, that I don't like Red Delicious apples.


Links!
  • THE TRIAL BALLOON: O teachers, after a banner year for graphic novels, don’t ban these books: Graphic novels are often maligned as "not real books." Yet many graphic novels are poignant stories, enhanced with beautiful artwork, that reaches an audience "real" books may not reach - an excellent choice for reluctant and/or beginning readers, those with reading disabilities, or those learning English as a second language. 
  • A.N. Roquelaure is back! Erotica readers everywhere rejoice. 
  • What's Driving Chaotic Dismantling of Canada's Science Libraries? An important question. Government officials insist everything important is being digitized, while the scientists who actually use the information are decrying the loss of vital data. 
  • Illiterate, but in Love With Books: Muhammad Latif Oata can't read, but is in love with stories. He's found a novel way to share his love of books with travelers, letting them borrow, take, and leave books in exchange for the stories held between their covers. 
  • Oppression To Opera: Could A Woman's Courage Change Pakistan? When Mukhtar Mai was handed over by her village council and gang-raped in expiation for her brother's molestation of another woman, she didn't do the expected, socially "decent" thing of committing suicide. Her bravery may bring necessary and lasting change to Pakistan, and her story is being memorialized in opera.

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