The Future of Libraries: Short on Books, Long on Tech

This isn't your childhood library.

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Hunt Library

Corrections Appended: July 12, 2013

The original version of this article included several quotes or statements that were not clearly attributed to the original sources.

This isn’t your childhood library. The Hunt Library at North Carolina State University is beautiful. The main floor looks more like a sleek Apple showroom than a stuffy library. And instead of a Genius Bar, there’s an Ask Me alcove, where you can get help on everything from laptops to flash drives.

Rather than the Dewey system, color-coded walls, stairs and elevators help you 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. But the best part? Built with state funds and private donations, it’s open to the public.

Welcome to the library of the future.

“There’s a lot of talk about how libraries should change, but very few ideas of how they should be shaped,” Vaughn Tan, a member of the Harvard’s University Library project, told the Library Journal. “Every library should figure out what they want to be and just do that.”

Across the country, in the booming Bexar County in San Antonio, you’ll see the same thing: groups of people huddle over gadgets instead of the card catalog, as food and coffee vendors dot the space. No stern librarian here to hush you into submission — if you need to concentrate, “just enough” noise is better than absolute silence. One thing’s missing at Bexar County’s library — the books. That’s right — a library with 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.

Just like traditional libraries, you use a card to check out any of the 10,000 e-books, and you’ll have two to three weeks to read them before they simply disappears from your e-reader — no late fees, overdue fines. In fact, you’ll never have to step foot into the library. Just borrow and return material from a computer or smartphone. But if you forget to return an e-reader, it’ll deactivate it remotely to remind you.

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. Leaning on digital helped BiblioTech pull together assets and collection quickly, rather than spend time and resources building up a physical book inventory. “For us this was just an obvious solution to a growing problem,” Laura Cole, project coordinator, told the BBC. County judge Nelson Wolff even said the Apple store look and feel inspired its long, gadget-topped workbench layout, according to HLNtv.com.

It’s a high-stakes gamble for libraries. And nothing, it seems, is too sacred.

Leaning on Digital

When was the last time you stepped into a library? Probably, not in a while. After all, when you have Google, you can look up anything with a smartphone or tablet.

As library attendance declines, officials facing tough budget cutbacks see them as easy targets. In 2011, nearly half of all states reported a cut in funding for three years in a row. California, in particular, cut the budget in half from 2011 to 2012, while Texas slashed two-thirds from its State Library and Archives Commission.

You may think libraries a dying relic, but surprisingly, people still go there 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. And 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.

Technology crippled libraries, but they’re also helping them keep apace, as more people pick up e-readers at the cost of physical books. In the past year, a quarter of Americans read an e-book, and as of November, about one-third reported owning an e-reader or tablet, according to a Pew survey.

For Bexar, a digital library was the most affordable way to service its residents, but 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. “I think there’s some value to the ability to hold a book in one’s hand,” Maureen Sullivan, president of the American Library Association, told The Atlantic Cities. “There’s something very special about the tactile experience, a personal connection that happens there.”

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, much like it did with 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. After all, if you can borrow e-books for free, why would you buy them online? You probably won’t.

For libraries, supplying e-books can cost up to three times more than physical books. And they say if publishers continue to withhold or sell e-books at such high prices, they won’t be able to continue their core mission of serving the public.

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. “It is a most exciting time for libraries,” Sullivan said, this time to the Chicago Sun-Times. “Books are still important, but libraries are also delivering content and experiences to their communities in new, very different and exciting ways.”

Other Ways to Keep Apace

A shift is needed. To move libraries from places where you look up facts to those where you learn skills and engage in new experiences. Instead of “shushing” librarians and stilted study rooms, libraries often have integrated art galleries, coffee shops and even cafeterias. And some are even exploring the idea of a 21st century gathering space.

At Harvard, a group of students from the Graduate School of Design created a pop-up space, called the “Labrary,” which shows how a library can move to digital yet still stay vital. Open since last November, the Labrary showcases projects ranging from edible telegrams made with graham crackers and 3-D icing printers to an online photo opera where visitors enter a murder mystery photo booth and experience “death by technology.” The flexible, connected space also brings together workshops to serve the community.

Libraries are also pushing to offer spaces for kids to hang out, play games and learn in what’s being called a “maker culture.” Three years ago, the Chicago Public Library started its YouMedia program to engage kids with interactive learning programs like those focusing on laser cutters and 3-D printers. In Chattanooga, for example, a record-setting 1,200 people stopped by the library in one day to check out large-scale industrial models, 3-D scanners and an experimental 3-D videoconferencing system using Kinect cameras. And Kids in other libraries can do more than use gadgets — they can learn soldering and circuitry to build them.

In some ways, libraries are doing what they’ve always done: adapting to technology, whether by collecting documents, storing records and videotapes or offering e-books and computer terminals. Today, they’re under pressure to give more and create spaces that connect people to information and ideas.

Books won’t fade, but with so many other mediums to explore, libraries, especially those with technology, can enhance skills. Access itself isn’t enough: libraries need to harness the sheer overabundance of information in the digital age and become facilitators to help us sort through the avalanche.

This article was written by Margaret Rock and originally appeared on Mobiledia.

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31 comments
GaleciaGroup
GaleciaGroup

Oy.  What ya'll said....not just one shush reference but two.  And library attendance has NOT been falling.  On the contrary, attendance goes up while budgets go down.  Disheartening.

SuzanneStaufferLambert
SuzanneStaufferLambert

I won't repeat the excellent comments below, but since nearly every paragraph contains some inaccuracy, there's plenty to go around. The fact that she mistook Hunt Library's decor for an information organization scheme speaks volumes for her lack of research and understanding. For someone writing about information, she's is woefully ignorant and misinformed. A library without books? E-books are books. I seriously have to wonder if she has ever as an adult used a public library. Where is her evidence for her claim that "technology crippled libraries?" Libraries embraced technology in the 1970s; OCLC was founded in 1967, for heaven's sake! Given that Bexar PL it isn't even open to the public yet, I have to wonder how she saw people doing anything. Public libraries have never been just "where you look up facts." Has she never checked out a book for leisure reading or a video or DVD? Attended a library program? Libraries have provided community meeting rooms since the 19th century; they offered newspapers and magazines beginning in the 19th century; children's programming and services began --  you guessed it -- in the 19th century. Did her parents never take her to story time? Did she never participate in Summer Reading Program? Tie-dye a t-shirt at a teen event? What a deprived childhood she must have had.

rbhatt
rbhatt

I am so heartened by the comments to this narrow-minded, ill-researched, cliche-ridden article.  So much has been very well said by others.  Nevertheless, I was so frustrated by the lack of accurate information throughout, I couldn't help adding my own voice to the masses. "When was the last time...[the writer]... stepped into a library? Probably, not in a while."  This article has done more to perpetuate the old library concept than anything I have recently read!!  


MiaNameah
MiaNameah

Awww another privileged white person thinking libraries commonly only hold books and are relics. How cute!

KarenHarris
KarenHarris

The book in hand is not dead...though the shushing librarian is...and has been reborn as a referee teaching some customers how to be in a shared space. Something that is happening with electronic access and gadgets of all kinds is the "alone together" phenomenon. While the device provides a singular experience, people need community in some form even if it is just being next to another person who is with their device.  This is why you may find the customers that come in the library with their device  to read or study but not interact directly with others.   Libraries are warm open spaces now where the customer can create their experience.  Stuffy?? I don't know where the article writer has been...not in the vibrant public library of today and I encourage him to visit one.  In most one will find people at tables where tutoring or job searches are happening in one area...a book club in another area... a story time in another area etc.  The most successful public libraries craft a strategic plan wherein they first do a community scan and then ask their customers what they want in library service delivery.  After they identify important services they then justify to their funding body the plan they create.  This approach continues even after the Strategic Plan is in place so that changing needs can be identified and addressed.  Let's hope we continue to learn and evolve and not just follow the lead of others without our own opportunity for discovery...and that we are lead by where the money is....also...let's wonder how eye sight may be impacted for those who solely use a device.    

dfromnj
dfromnj

I agree with "Taoiseach".  When was the last time the writer of this article has been in a library?  Libraries today mix print and tech for their users.  "stuffy"??  Not!

taoiseach
taoiseach

Where to begin? Why is it that articles about "new" libraries inevitably begin with worn out cliches and descriptions  that are sadly outdated.  The shushing librarian stereotype has been dead for decades-with exceptions I am sure will be pointed out-and stuffy? Again, a glib and patently inaccurate description of libraries that bears little resemblance to reality. And the comment about Google? another misconception that librarians have spent years disproving and yet remains a staple of articles written by people who should know better. The strong and most salient points in this article relate to technology and  adaptability. A library  reflects what the community it serves needs and the formats it desires. That means computers and WI Fi, but it also means books. It includes quiet study areas and places that encourage congregation and exchange of ideas. Most important, it is based on community input and collaboration. It is not a one size fits all model.

italiabookclub
italiabookclub

How to prefigure the library of the future? Open spaces,video screen and media connection,forum debate  in connection with social networks, databases and access to libraries around the world . Here we are . Comment by www.theitalianbookclub.com

rrbrdr
rrbrdr

I have an e-reader and use it but still go to the library.  I don't have a problem with paying the artist.  I believe that the e-revolution will eventually take the publishing houses out of the book business.  Websites that showcase self publishing and self publishing as a viable concept are exciting to me ( and I don't write)..  Up until recently, the books, short stories and poems I have been able to read were those that "made the cut".  I love reading the stuff that may or may not have "made the cut".  I would love for the technology to give me an option to produce a "hard copy" in my home or just an e-copy.  With this 3-d printing just gaining ground, I see this type of thing just around the corner and then I would really get into building my "own personal library" ..........I can see how the e-copy would remain un-lendable but the in home produced hard copy would be share-able and priced accordingly.

mercutiaah
mercutiaah

"Tactical experience"?  Ms. Sullivan probably said "tactile".  With so many other "mediums" to explore?  Are libraries now in the occult business?  Media is the plural form you're looking for. You know what's a dying relic?  Quality journalism.  Others have already pointed out the poor and inaccurate research in this piece.  The quality of writing and the obvious bias in this article's tone are further strikes against it.  Also, no mention of the digital divide and its impact on the bookless library model.  "Technology crippled libraries" or "In some ways, libraries are doing what they’ve always done: adapting to technology"  Which is it? The truth is, libraries and librarians have always been at the forefront of creating and implementing the latest technology, from moveable type to the MARC record.  If you'd bothered to perform a modicum of research, perhaps IN A LIBRARY, you might've discovered this.


cathymiller4u
cathymiller4u

Call me sentimental but I still love the printed word.  It would be very sad if all the printed books disappeared.  I have a Kindle and use it frequently.  I still like big coffee table books with gorgeous photos too.  And on the practical side, if the power ever went out or a horrendous war destroyed civilization, printed books could show us how to turn the power back on (even if all the engineers were killed, etc.).  Don't rely solely on technology.  It could all easily slip away.

KJA_Cooke
KJA_Cooke

As a working college librarian I hope that we move more towards the advantages that digital technology has to offer and stop moaning about the demise of the book-shelf. As well as the obvious advantages to storage and presevation, from a purely practicle point of view it makes absolute sense to have digital control on the lending of books. We have a real problem with retrieving books from readers who think that the book becomes their property after issue and everyone else who needs it can just wait until they are happy to return it. The issue of fines would no longer be an issue and to the librarian behind the counter or on the end of the phone less confrontational and stressful.  I think library users would become more discriminatory in their choice as the time limit would encourage them to only select what they had time to read within the lending period. Overdue letters and emails would disappear and free up already limited time. Lastly, the option to download remotely means the user is free from the traditional wait and delays imposed by physical opening hours. Just some thoughts from the working side of the counter. 

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

Ebooks are great things, especially when you're traveling and don't want to lug a half-dozen books along in your suitcase.

And yet, there are those of us who, when we're just sitting around the house, PREFER to pull out a physical book rather than stare at another screen for hours.  I find it very sad to think that I'd no longer be able to borrow books from a library (which I do regularly) just because someone's decided it's easier/cheaper/better to put everything into tablet form.

azio
azio

Article had this line -- Rather than the Dewey system, color-coded walls, stairs and elevators help you 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. 

This was in the discussion of the Hunt Library. It is a University Library and of course it does not use Dewey. The use the Library of Congress call numbers. I looked up this book in their catalog --Countering the problem of falsified and substandard drugs. It had a call number of HD9665.5 .I578 2013. This is the Library of Congress call number. So the Hunt Library is not organizing everything by color.

mythought
mythought

I think adding technology and cutting down on books makes sense.  In urban environments when space is at a premium, reducing the number of books could help immensely.  One place where books should absolutely remain, though, and not be displaced, is the CHILDREN'S SECTION.  I think books are vital to children's educational development.  In addition, it should still create an inviting space for things like story hour.  I really hope those kinds of library events don't meet their end with this technological revolution.

mrsmorgan4
mrsmorgan4

 This is sickening. Not everything is online, and for research, most people don't know HOW to look for information- and much of it is behind paywalls.


Libraries shall create their own sad demise, they've just said that ebooks are significantly costing more than actual books. People don't use libraries to just read a novel, they are for research as well (remember microfiche?) 


Some billionaire who may be reading this, PLEASE open a library, and fill it with BOOKS.

SteveEhrlich
SteveEhrlich

But with all this futuristic technology if somebody gets diarrhea it's still back to the Stone Age.

JenniferCrispin
JenniferCrispin

Is Time in the practice of assigning stories to people who neither know anything about the subject nor care to do even the slightest bit of research?  This story is disappointing.  Perhaps if the author had been in a library in the past decade or two, the article might have included more facts and fewer uninformed prejudices.

ShirleyPeck
ShirleyPeck

The author of this article is perhaps speaking about university libraries, but I doubt her facts are accurate for them; I know they are inaccurate for public libraries.  She claims library attendance is declining: the American Library Association reports that "Public libraries circulated 2.46 billion materials in FY 2010, the highest circulation in 10 years, representing a continued increasing trend."  Also, "Public libraries served 297.6 million people throughout the United States, a number that is equivalent to 96.4 percent of the total U.S. population, according to new research by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)."  And here's another statistic: "Sixty-five percent of those polled said they had visited the library in the past year; women are significantly more likely than men (72 percent vs. 58 percent) to fall into this category, especially working women, working mothers and women aged 18-54."  One statement the author makes, that no one is using the card catalog, is correct, but that's because virtually all libraries have computerized all holdings, a process completed decades ago. Anyone seeking additional statistical data can refer to the American Library Association website.  

JennClark
JennClark

Does anyone else HATE this? "Oh, don't worry, after you've had your book out for two weeks we'll rip it away from you!" Touting that busy working folks will have two weeks to read a book like The Stand as some kind of bonus feature? Hey, you know what would be really great - a library with no books! A library where there's just computers and tablets and e-readers, where instead of that cozy feeling of browsing the shelves for that one special book with an intriguing title, or a cover that piques your interest, or a special "old-time" texture to the pages that makes you just HAVE to hold it - instead of that, we just have a "futuristic" building with lots of glass and lots of space where you feel exposed and uncomfortable. That sounds great. NOT.

LeeMilner
LeeMilner

Agree with adding the tech but do not agree with purging books.  While 10,000 books sounds like a lot, it is not.  10,000 books is  the average collection size of a small elementary school.  Many of the 10,000 titles are fluff or very old classics that are free from copyright.  People need to think long and hard before ditching the print.  Once you ditch the print you are stuck with reoccurring maintenance and subscription fees.  You also have to purchase the 200-600 dollar device to read the 7.99 dollar book.  Libraries need to stay blended until all titles are digitized and made available in an economically sound manner.  The other issue is privacy.  No one thinks about this but it is an issue.  Lets say someone has a person issue like an eating disorder.  A print collection allows a reader to pick up a book anonymously, read it at a desk, and then return it to the shelf.  Ebooks are not anonymous.  Public libraries purge checkout data from circulation systems.  This is not the case for ebooks.  Privacy is not a bad thing.  We are being sold out.  

Martin San
Martin San

Helps save the trees. I'm suggesting e-library :D

elam11
elam11

@mrsmorgan4  "Not everything is online, and for research, most people don't know HOW to look for information- and much of it is behind paywalls."

Libraries, whether their collections are physical, digital, or a mix, DO tend to offer some of that content behind the paywalls to the best of their budgets' abilities via subscriptions to databases. As for "how to look for information"-- what do think the LIBRARIANS are for? And yes, we do offer remote reference access (email, text, chat, etc) for those who can't or won't physically approach us.

AyanaGreen
AyanaGreen

@mrsmorgan4    " Not everything is online, and for research, most people don't know HOW to look for information- and much of it is behind paywalls."  Thank you.  Not everything will be online or available for free.  So, what kind of research will students be able to do with limited library sources?  Garbage in will yield garbage out.

italiabookclub
italiabookclub

How to prefigure the library of the future? Open spaces,video screen and media connection,forum debate  in connection with social networks, databases and access to libraries around the world . Here we are . Comment by www.theitalianbookclub.comRead more

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

@LeeMilner While I agree with most of what you say, I think you're a little more concerned about privacy than you ought to be -- or at least, than libraries need to make you.  For the record, my library right now has some ebooks, but mostly regular books.  I read entirely the latter.  Despite that, when I log in to the library website to reserve a physical book, the list of all the books I've ever borrowed (or at least in the last several years) is right there.  So whatever you fear about ebook privacy problems is already an issue today, with physical books.

Which brings me to my next point: this has been the case in most larger cities for a full decade now.  Yet I've never once heard of a boss firing someone because they read a book on bulemia or whatever.  Probably because (1) 99.99999% of bosses don't care to break into the library database to find out what their employees are reading and because (2) 99.99999% of bosses realize that you're as likely to be reading that book because your sister has bulemia as because you do.

Really, it's not a problem, and it hasn't been a problem.  I see no particular reason to fear that the switch to ebooks would make it a problem, either.

mrsmorgan4
mrsmorgan4

@LeeMilner You are on to something here. The digital life creates a thread connecting an identified "number" (you) to what you have downloaded, clicked, or looked at. Have you noticed that every little thing that cannot be tracked is now being made obsolete? Fax machines (analog, very difficult to spy on- very secure mode of communicating written messages- still used in medical field as it's most private *HIPAA*) cassette tape answering machines (digital voice mail on cells easily accessed by provider) US post gone the way of careless emails (also accessed via provider, even I as a customer service rep at cable co. could access personal emails)


everything you do DIGITALLY creates a route to YOU. Your entire personality can very easily be put together- fears, plans, history- by collecting all those tiny bits you've left behind, and forgotten by you, but not by the Great Machine. 


Carry on...

italiabookclub
italiabookclub

How to prefigure the library of the future? Open spaces,video screen and media connection,forum debate  in connection with social networks, databases and access to libraries around the world . Here we are . Comment by www.theitalianbookclub.com

AyanaGreen
AyanaGreen

@mrsmorgan4 Because so much information is not digitized-and may not ever be- schools with an all-digital library will stigmatize its graduates.  Graduates who didn't have access to ALL  (including print resources) the world's knowledge will not be considered first-class material.