I love books. The smell, the feel, the weight. I love cracking open a brand new book and savoring the feeling of being the first to gaze on its pages. I also love adopting a used book and imagining the other hands that held it before me, the other minds that were entertained or trained by its contents. But some say that this tactile experience is an outdated one, and are marching full force into the digital age in which books as we know it will cease to exist.
If books are sacred, than libraries are like church. Something about the quiet, the powerful presence of all that untapped knowledge has always made me feel reverent. Ever since the first public library opened in America’s early days of existence, their design has been fairly uniform: stacks and stacks of books, organized on shelves, with places to read them and a system for borrowing them.
A new effort in Texas seeks to build America’s first bookless library, something that’s hard for my mind to comprehend. Proposed by Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, a self-declared book lover and collector, the prototype BiblioTech will be the first library to be completely devoid of paper.
“We are trailblazing,” said Judge Wolff, who proposed the concept citing a need for suburban library services. Proponents say the new system, costing $1.5 million to start, will enable users to access an initial 10,000 titles from anywhere. The prototype site at 3505 Pleasanton Road, a county satellite office serving the South Side, will have computers, take-home e-readers, study areas and meeting rooms.
Wolff says that he was inspired to pioneer this project after reading the authorized biography of the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Both feel that future generations will see little utility in printed books, other than as antiques, and that it’s time to for libraries to embrace the digital age. Such a feat may not have been conceivable just a few years ago, but with the proliferation of tablets and e-readers, such a digital exchange system is possible, and already demonstrated by small e-lending services at libraries around the nation.
Less paper, more access, fewer physical objects to be abused, stolen, or lost: it’s hard to criticize this idea. My only hesitation comes from the potential impact on the environment. I know, there are no trees involved in the publication of a digital book. However, there’s still a lot of energy consumption, earth-harming extraction of precious metals and the potential production of massive amounts of e-waste.
As I recently wrote for EarthTechling, constant access to the internet and digital media consumes a huge amount of energy, most of which is gobbled up by massive data centers where these resources “live.” The production of all those computers, e-readers and tablets requires intensive mining of rare earth elements, and although it’s the fastest growing waste stream in the world, e-waste recycling rates remain dismal. There’s also the complicated issue of access. Yes, all digital titles may seem like a genius idea to those of us lucky enough to own the gadgets required to view them. Unfortunately, there are still many who don’t enjoy this luxury, or even internet access at their homes through which they could be accessed on a desktop.
Thankfully, the Bexar County bookless library will still exist in the real world. There will be a physical location in which people can read, relax and utilize technology they might not otherwise access at home. “We know they have less access to technology and less economic buying power than other regions of the city,” Wolff said. “Now we’ll be providing them a service that anybody else that has money would have,” he said. In addition to the media itself, the necessary e-readers will be lent out to the public. Residents will be able to check out one of 100 e-readers available for home use, enabling low-income families to become proficient in devices that will be common, and perhaps required, in the coming decades.
Sharing of the technology as well as the books makes good sense for the residents, the library and the environment as well. It smacks of collaborative consumption and is a great example of the new ways the sharing economy will change the world. I’ll be watching the developments of this library with great interest. It’s the future, after all.
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