SAN ANTONIO — Texas has seen the future of the public library, and it looks a lot like an Apple Store: Rows of glossy iMacs beckon; iPads mounted on a tangerine-color bar invite readers; and hundreds of other tablets stand ready for checkout to anyone with a borrowing card.
The librarians also imitate Apple’s dress code, wearing matching shirts and that standard-bearer of geek-chic, the hoodie. But this $2.3 million library might be most notable for what it does not have: books.
That makes Bexar County’s BiblioTech the nation’s only bookless public library, a distinction that has attracted scores of digital bookworms, plus emissaries from as far away as Hong Kong who want to learn about the idea and possibly take it home.
“I told our people that you need to take a look at this. This is the future,” said Mary Graham, vice president of South Carolina’s Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. “If you’re going to be building new library facilities, this is what you need to be doing.”
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All-digital libraries have been on college campuses for years. But the county, which runs no other libraries, made history when it decided to open BiblioTech. It is the first bookless public-library system in the country, according to information gathered by the American Library Association.
Similar proposals in other communities have been met with doubts. In California, the city of Newport Beach floated the concept of a bookless branch in 2011 until a backlash put stacks back in the plan. Nearly a decade earlier in Arizona, the Tucson-Pima library system opened an all-digital branch, but residents who said they wanted books ultimately got their way.
Graham toured BiblioTech in the fall and is pushing Charleston leaders for a bond measure in 2014 to fund a similar concept, down to the same hip aesthetic reminiscent of Apple.
San Antonio is the nation’s seventh-largest city but ranks 60th in literacy, according to census figures. In the early 2000s, community leaders in BiblioTech’s neighborhood of low-income apartments and thrift stores railed about not even having a nearby bookstore, said Laura Cole, BiblioTech’s project coordinator. A decade later, Cole said, most families in the area still don’t have Wi-Fi. “How do you advance literacy with so few resources available?” she said.
Residents are taking advantage now. The library is on pace to surpass 100,000 visitors in its first year.
Head librarian Ashley Elkholf came from a traditional Wisconsin high-school library and recalled the scourges of her old job: misshelved items hopelessly lost in the stacks, pages ripped out of books and items that went unreturned.
But in the nearly four months since BiblioTech opened, Elkholf has yet to lend out one of her tablets and never see it again. The space is also more economical than traditional libraries despite the technology: BiblioTech purchases its 10,000-title digital collection for the same price as physical copies, but the county saved millions on architecture because the building doesn’t need to accommodate printed books.
“If you have bookshelves, you have to structure the building so it can hold all of that weight,” Elkholf said.
Up the road in Austin, for example, the city is building a downtown library to open in 2016 at a cost of $120 million.
Even a smaller traditional public library that recently opened in nearby suburban Kyle cost that city about $1 million more than BiblioTech.