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A Paperless Library for the Hinterlands

The paperless public library is preparing to rear it’s paperless head again according to this BBC article. The comparison to the paperless office is amusing because I don’t think many offices have managed to accomplish that feat.

The soon to be paperless library will be in Bexar County, TX, which apparently has never had a library before. Since San Antonio is in Bexar County, and San Antonio definitely has public libraries, I’m assuming this means a county library system everyone could access regardless of whether they live in San Antonio proper.

Nevertheless, the library’s “first branch will be in a relatively poor district on the city of San Antonio’s South Side.”

It will have 100 e-readers on loan, and dozens of screens where the public will be able to browse, study, and learn digital skills. However it’s likely most users will access BiblioTech’s initial holding of 10,000 digital titles from the comfort of their homes, way out in the Texas hinterland.

As of the 2010 Census, San Antonio had 1,327,407 residents and Bexar County 1,714,773, so it seems there are about 400,000 people without any kind of library service. I guess they’re right that everything’s bigger in Texas, including populations without access to public libraries.

It also seems those 400,000 or so Texans aren’t particularly well off, since the median household income in the county is $38,328 and 15.9% of the population is below the poverty line.

How likely is it that all those people out in the Texas hinterland are going to have computers or Internet connections? And of those, how many have either tablet computers, smartphones, or dedicated ebook readers, without which ebook reading is a much less enjoyable experience?

100 ebook readers for lending doesn’t seem like a lot for that many people, unless we assume that there won’t be a lot of readers. I don’t think of rural Texas as particularly literary, but there must be considerably more than 100 people who like to read a lot.

The dozens of computers could be useful for people in need, but if they wanted to drive somewhere to read books sitting in a public library, couldn’t they go to one of the 24 existing branches of the San Antonio Public Library and sit there to read? Libraries ration their computer use out of necessity sometimes, but they usually don’t stop inoffensive people from sitting around reading their printed books.

I’m all for rural access to public libraries, but this move seems more idealistic than workable. It’s partly inspired by the “success of the University of Texas San Antonio (UTSA) bookless engineering school library which opened three years ago.” It’s hard to think of a less apt comparison to a rural public library than a university engineering school library.

Given the cost of ebooks, it might have been cheaper to purchase 10,000 paperbacks and build a little library in the middle of the least served area. That would probably promote greater access to reading than a technologically state of the art library for a most likely less than technologically state of the art population.



  1. Bonegirl06 says:

    Wow! Talk about an apples and oranges comparison with the engineering school library.

  2. anonymous says:

    The Bexar County library is a complete duplication of existing services in San Antonio. Everyone that lives in Bexar County is eligible to receive a free San Antonio Public Library card which provides remote access to Overdrive among other electronic resources. The Southside of San Antonio is already served by a network of branch libraries. The main benefit of the library will be to provide additional access to public computers. I’m all for increased access to technology but why not just call it a computer lab instead of a library?

  3. anonymous says:

    Why is it that instead of embracing a pilot project that may actually change the lives of lower income residents in Bexar County TX who have no easy access (public transportation or branches in their unincorporated neighborhoods) to libraries, the only comments made by librarians have been to bash the idea and deem it a likely failure.

    This project has been covered in the San Antonio Express-News, the Wall Street Journal (as early as January 2013) and now the BBC. Yet, I have not seen one article in Library Journal, LJ Hotline or American Libraries. Why has no one in library-land talked with County Judge Wolff or the staff he has put in charge of this project?

    Your comments lack respect, vision, innovation and creativity – exactly what holds many libraries and librarians back from being relevant to the tax-paying public.

    Are public librarians afraid BiblioTech might succeed? Are you afraid that you may have to replicate this model and assist people with using and navigating technologies that need to be a part of how they engage with and succeed in everyday life? Is this not a great example of the safety-net role of public libraries?

    It’s time to get over yourselves!

    • Another Anonymous says:

      You’re right! Calling someone names who happens to disagree with you on the Internet is truly innovative and respectful!

      The bibliothech’s best aspects are that they will serve as additional computer usage and training centers. But if, in fact, they had been called that – a tech center – then certainly they would not have made headlines. Bookless libraries are news worthy in a way that, apparently, offering technology services to the under served is not.

    • I think perhaps public librarians are afraid that BiblioTech will fail, and in the process consume a lot of money that could have been used to address the problem squarely instead of throwing technology at it and expecting a miracle. Do we know how many of the target population already have the necessary equipment? because if they could get to the new library to borrow some, they could get to the old ones too.

      The Via system map actually looks rather good to me, compared to bus service around here. So do their service hours. Might it be better to spend a little more on extending transit service further out, linking up with nearby communities, etc. and thus making the existing library system (and other city facilities) more accessible? Might it be better to fund later hours for the existing libraries, so that working people have more than a few minutes to use them after work?

  4. I think what AL and others are trying to say is that if the area is as low income as what the article states, “relatively poor district” that many of the people the bookless library is trying to serve may instead by further alienated by not having access at home to computers with internet, smart phones, and e-readers. These items are not exactly the cheapest thing around, and data plans are costly as well. While a bookless library may have succeeded, the engineering school, the information needs of an engineering student are vastly different then the needs of the average public library user. I currently work in a library that serves many homeless and low income people. In many instances they are here to work on resumes, as well as use the internet, and find jobs. Some are here trying to work on school work. These people come to the library to use our services, mostly internet, because they do not have this at home. Perhaps the money could have been better spent increasing outreach services to these areas through a dedicated bookmobile, or by opening another branch with both computers and books (not just ebooks) in the area. I know many people who do not understand how to download books to their ereader or computer, and would prefer to just borrow a paper copy. In some areas, having the newest technology isn’t necessarily beneficial to your patrons. I would be interested in seeing what methodology they undertook to come to this decision. I am not saying that it can’t work, but I think it is highly unlikely that this was the best solution for bringing additional services to these areas.

  5. Also, we all know about the hassles libraries are having with publishers concerning ebooks. Many of the popular titles are not available or will not be made available until well after the book is released.

  6. Free2read says:

    I think the real point here is that the BiblioTech concept recognizes the very real need to provide internet and computer access (and computer instruction) in poor underserved communities. Those “dozens of screens” will be in high demand throughout the day. The e-book readers may or may not circulate, but the truth is that even the poor now use smartphones rather than landlines as their primary means of communicationsso they will be able to access the digital collection if they wan to. The shortcomings I see are in delivering an adequate collection of childrens’ ebooks to promote early literacy — smartphones and e-readers are not the best delivery devices for that demographic. And, the article doesn’t mention providing traditional library services like children’s programming or adult literacy classes at all. I hope this project succeeds and doesn’t become merely an “internet cafe” when it could be so much more.

  7. anonymous says:

    A library is a place where librarians serve the needs of information seekers. If this place has librarians, it’s a library. If it has techs but no librarians, it’s a computer lab.

  8. What’s next a public library without librarians!?!?

    Oh wait, thanks FCPL management!

  9. Guys please someone explain me the original title. It i s “Paperless public libraries switch to digital”

  10. Disgusted Librarian says:

    I’m not sure digital libraries are being promoted so much as a way to serve the undeserving poor and promote the learning of new technology as they are a method and excuse to advertise technology companies and websites (Amazon) that give “public” libraries kickbacks, and a begging tool for more funds from communities twhich have no idea how the money is being wasted.

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