News of the launch of BiblioTech - a new book-less library in Texas, USA - has sparked debate about what the future of the library might hold. The project will have thousands of titles available both online and at the library itself. There will be 100 e-readers which can be rented for use at home or in the library, 50 laptops, 50 tablets (plus 50 more reserved especially for children) and 100 computers. Users will also be able to rent books to their own devices, which may well bring the many e-reading converts back into the library fold. The brainchild of Judge Nelson Wolff - a man with an impressive collection of first editions and a passion for Apple’s design aesthetic - BiblioTech will have just about everything you could want to indulge your passion for reading, just without the paperbacks.
BiblioTech comes at a time when UK libraries are in crisis, while their US counterparts still appear to be thriving. One striking difference between the two is that US libraries are adapting to the changing reading environment in a very bold and positive way. A recent report showed that around 66% of US libraries offer free eBook lending, while in Britain there are very few instances of this tech-friendly approach. Despite much evidence to support the potential of e-lending, many remain sceptical about the idea of a physical library, free of physical books. One such objection is the idea that no books means no librarians. The example of the 'Race Online' initiative in the UK, which involved librarians teaching people how to use new technologies and help them get online, clearly demonstrates the ongoing need for approachable and knowledgeable staff within our communities, to help with literacy and access to information.
There are some concerns over the impact that tablets and other e-reading devices may have on children's’ literacy rates. But up to now, any reports have been varied and inconclusive. And you need only look at the example of Apple to see how powerful making something cool and easy to use can be, and how potentially attractive the notion of a futuristic library would be to children. Before Apple put desire into their designs, computers were the preserve of nerds and those who had to use them, whereas today their stores are a popular hangout for people of all ages. Could libraries follow suit, encouraging more people to read in the process? What's more, the off-site availability of eBooks will increase access for those living in more remote areas and for those who are incapacitated, which can surely only be seen as a good thing.
A major appeal of libraries is that they are community-centered and in the US this is still very much the case, with authors talking at their local libraries and events often held at them. Best-selling author Carla Neggers is a good example of how authors can be involved in their libraries, helping to draw together the communities that surround them; she's currently sponsoring a contest in which people can nominate their local library for a chance to win $1000 in funding. This sort of communal vibe and author involvement is something which has been lost in UK libraries and which needs to be addressed. Perhaps embracing tech might help libraries recapture the essence of community.
We think there will always be a demand for physical books - high-end, limited editions and rare finds will always have a currency and a popularity - and so the library of the future will most likely have a digital area that looks something like Wolff's project, but that they will continue to offer paperbacks and hardbacks too. The strength of libraries across the globe has always been that they cater to all tastes and needs. The real strength of the BiblioTech project is as a concept, which will hopefully serve to prove that e-lending works, and should be universally adopted by libraries everywhere.
Bringing technology into libraries not only has the potential to attract a wider readership – particularly the younger generation – it also open up the opportunity for making reading a social experience. Users could recommend books to one another; a library could have a list of most-read books on their website which could be updated automatically; and authors could visit libraries where their books are especially popular. As Stephanie Duncan, digital media director at Bloomsbury, points out, “more people visit a library than any cultural or sporting venue, which is true of all English-speaking markets.” If libraries don't change with the times then this might not be the case for much longer. The next-generation libraries don't have to take the all-or-nothing approach that BiblioTech has, but they certainly have to embrace e-lending and explore ways in which it might enhance the library experience for readers, writers, and publishers.