The Bibliotech: A bookless library in Bexan County, Texas.

The Bibliotech: A bookless library in Bexan County, Texas.

by Hugh Gilmore

The largest libraries in the world are the British Library (151,000,000 items); the Library of Congress (about the same, 22,000,000 of which are books); the New York Public Library (53,000,000); the Russian State Library (44,000,000) and the National Library of Russia (37,000,000). All of them are overcrowded, understaffed, and under-budgeted. In the meantime, more books arrive to be shelved every day.

How many more? UNESCO tries to keep track of the number and type of books published in each country each year. They consider such statistics to be an important index of the standard of living, education and of a country’s self-awareness.

According to its most recent figures (2011 and 2012 – a long time ago in the new electronics age), the top five book-publishing countries in the world are the United States (with close to 300,000 new titles per year); China (about 250,000); United Kingdom (150,000); Russian Federation (117,000); India (83,000). Those are all round numbers. Combined with the productions of other countries, at least a million new titles appear every year.

Where will they go? The same principles that govern people’s personal book collections hold true for the world’s libraries: Soon after new shelves are built, they are filled to capacity. Libraries then do the same things individuals do – move the overflow to the basement or the attic, stuff them in closets, or pack them up and move them to a storage rental unit.

They even remove and “garage sale” items they feel they’ll never (well, hardly ever) use again. If books go out at the rate they come in, the building will remain adequate in size. If not, they’ll need to build a bigger space, hire more staff and arrange for a Bigger Budget. And that phrase starts with a “B” and it rhymes with “T” – for Taxes. Big troubles arise in the River City Public Library and that of every other town, ville, junction and burgh in the world when the subject of public funding for frivolities comes up for debate.

Crowded storage space and the cost of expanding facilities are only two of the problems facing the world’s libraries. Books are made of corruptible materials, and they must be maintained. Also, hard choices must be faced when deciding which of many new, competing titles are best suited for any particular library’s needs. Furthermore, in rapidly changing times, nonfiction books are usually outdated – or at least not current – by the time they’re published.

That problem is especially true in the fields of medicine, science, engineering and technology. New scientific discoveries are usually shared with other researchers via texts, emails and blogs before they reach journal form.

Even if the book format is produced in a timely fashion most of the information is already known to researchers in those fields. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the most innovative recent experiments in library management have come from institutions that specialize in those fields. Those innovations all depend on the storage and retrieval of digitized information, rather than the relatively cumbersome, slow, space-hogging objects called books.

Some examples: In 2010 the engineering and technology library at the University of Texas, San Antonio, replaced all of its print materials with e-books and e-journals. The Terman Engineering Library at Stanford University pruned many of its books, adds 5,000 e-books a year and currently has close to 70,000 e-books available to students.

The Welch Library at Johns Hopkins Medical School spent six years transitioning to making nearly all of its materials available in digital format only. They kept possession of their rare book library of the history of medicine, but those are basically the only print format books to be be found in the building. (In this writer’s experience of researching this subject of “bookless libraries” the single best discussion of all aspects of this question can be found in the Welch Library’s “Final Report.” Available online. This instant. 24/7. No waiting.)

The Welch Library’s professional librarians are now termed “informationists” and they are embedded throughout the departments of the school rather than all being placed in the library buildings themselves.

Well, what are such libraries like? First, behind the scenes, working with the professional scientists, engineers, etc., the library staff decides which materials the library will make available. Next, it provides advisory staff, both for content and technology consultation. The buildings themselves house and make available a wide array of computers, databases, e-readers and communal spaces where both planned and serendipitous meetings may happen.

So far only one American community has created a “bookless” public library. The Bexar County Digital Library, also know as the BiblioTech opened Sept. 14, 2013, in a low-income neighborhood of San Antonio, Texas. The building contains iMac computers and iPad computers for use in the building, and tablets available for borrowing. Many libraries offer these devices, but the BiblioTech houses no printed books.

Library staffs throughout the world, both private and public, are watching and waiting to see how they do. The temptations to switch over are many: The materials are cheaper, the content does not require maintenance, spatial concerns are minimal (reading stations are needed for individuals, but each person has access to millions of books, which are neither owned nor stored by the library), and materials are available at all times. Though if you have no computer and the library is closed, you’re out of luck.

On the negative side: Most members of the generations that actually use “book libraries” are too sentimentally attached to books to give them up. (Their resistance is strong, but probably will be ignored when the revolution does arrive.)

Currently, many library patrons do not know how to use computers – and don’t want to learn. Worse yet, publishers are being very wary of selling electronic books to libraries. Instead, they sell leases that limit the number of “borrows” a library may permit. That’s why you can’t get many best sellers in digital form from your local library, or must get in a long line for your “turn” to read a book you want. This “modern” system is already antiquated.

In fact, in the fields of science and engineering and the like, publishers are becoming disinclined to publish print versions of what used to be called “books.” Not only is it cheaper to “print” electronic books, there is no need to build huge warehouses to store them or contract a trucking company to deliver them to a bricks and mortar store.

And where the sciences go, the liberal arts (despite their delusions to the contrary) will follow. In time, only print books of a very special kind will still be printed. What kind? Illustrated books, perhaps. Or those with wonderfully tactile covers. Self-published print books will probably still be possible. People like, perhaps even need, at least some ideas to have physical substance.

In fact, given what’s happening, it might be good to ask: Have you hugged your books today?

PS: Thanks to several alert readers who e-mailed me about the San Antonio “bookless library.”