February 17, 2018

Who Needs Books? A Q&A with the ‘Bookless Library’ Head Librarian

EklofLate last year, the Bexar County Library, which serves the area around San Antonio, TX, set up BiblioTech, the first all-digital library in the United States. Without any physical books at all, the branch raised a few eyebrows, but head librarian Ashley Eklof tells Library Journal that after a few months, the ebook-and technology-centric project has been so successful it already has its own spinoff at the county courthouse.

LJ: BiblioTech has been open for a few months now—how has the response been from patrons?

Ashley Eklof: We’ve had a positive response right off the bat, which was a surprise. I thought people would initially be uncomfortable with an all-digital library, that it could make people feel like we’re moving forward too quickly. But with tablets and ereaders becoming more common, people have shown they’re ready for it.

What do the numbers on that warm response look like?

We’ve had about 16,000 people through our doors, which is roughly 300 people a day. And in January, we opened kiosk in the Bexar County courthouse to serve the 500 jurors called to duty every day. It’s a great way to reach out and connect those county residents to our services, especially people who may not know about BiblioTech since we’re so new. It’s a good fit because jurors often have devices with them because they expect to be there all day, but they can check out and drop off ereaders there, too.

What’s been the biggest challenge?

Providing good service to the unexpected number of people we’ve had. The amount of people coming in, calling in, and asking for assistance really keeps us moving. It’s a positive challenge that we’ve been able to keep up with, but the growth has outpaced what we expected.

How is life different for staffers at BiblioTech than at a traditional library?

We get a lot of tech questions, and a lot of people bringing in devices, especially after Christmas, asking ‘How do I use this?’. We call our part-time staff technology assistants for a reason. They have to be tech savvy for everyone and everything that comes through the doors. We don’t want tech to be scary for anyone, and that means being able to say, ‘Yeah, we can help you with that.’ We still have requests from people who want traditional services like help finding information, doing research on our databases, and writing resumes, but we spend a lot less time shelving and a lot more on our patrons.

What’s the question you get most often at BiblioTech?

“You can really check out ereaders here?”

If you could offer one piece of advice to other libraries considering an all-digital branch, what would it be?

My advice would be ‘just go for it,’ in the sense of don’t be afraid to do this, because it’s an easy way for patrons to access the information they’re looking for. We get other librarians asking us how it’s going, how they handle ereader check-outs. If you’re on the edge about a digital branch, it’s definitely worth it.

You’ve worked in traditional libraries, including a school library in Wisconsin prior to this—do you miss the stacks?

I thought I would but I don’t. The books are still here, they’re’ just in a different format. There’s a place for traditional bookshelves, especially in areas where people have rare books and manuscripts. In a public library, though, our mission is about access, programming, and getting patrons what they want.

What’s something you don’t miss about more traditional spaces that you’re spared at BiblioTech?

The fact that if someone misplaced a book, it’s potentially lost is a problem that we don’t have. We have 800 ereaders and 20,000 titles available for checkout, and those books aren’t going anywhere. When I’m looking for a book, it’s going to be checked in or checked out, but it’ll be one of those.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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  1. Kudos to Ashley Eklof and the Bexar County Library for coming up with an effective way to serve your patrons!

    But what an unfortunate title for this piece. “Who Needs Books?” Well, Ms. Eklof’s patrons do, as do all our patrons, as do we librarians. Her library is full of books, just in another format.

    Good Q&A, though, and glad to see someone nimbly meeting user needs!

  2. Public Librarian says:

    Just curious about the uniform. How did this come about? Will this be the emerging trend for library directors?

    I did notice that the branch manager is a non-librarian, yet another trend?