30 June 2013

A Totally Digital Library

by Louis Willis

I think I’ve written at least two posts on libraries. I’ll probably write a few more before I am able to give it up because each time I read an article about a library closing or trying to change to keep up with the digital age, I worry. The thought of not being able to hold a paper book unsettles my mind. Of course, a world in which there are no paper books and in which a library goes completely paperless is not likely to happen in my time, but I still worry because I’m a natural worrier. I worry despite the good news that libraries are trying to remain relevant in the coming digital age. One is in fact trying to be the first to go completely digital.

Image courtesy of adamr
at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
County leaders in Bexar County Texas are planning to launch the first completely digital public library system called BiblioTech (from Spanish biblioteca). While other libraries have tried to go totally digital, none has succeeded because the users complained about not having access to paper books. Many libraries now lend both paper and ebooks.

BiblioTech will lend ereaders so that users will be able to download the book they want to checkout. They will be allowed to borrow only one book at a time. If they fail to return the ereader, the book will be deleted and the ereader will become just another piece of electronic junk. And, as a county leader noted, the library will have the resident’s name, phone number, and address. Imagine the library police showing up at his or her home to retrieve the purloined ereader. Good luck to Bexar County.

I can’t imagine not being able to hold a paper book in my hands and marking passages I admire. Yet, experience with my nine-year-old grandson tells me paper books might become a thing of the past in a few years. He uses his iPad to read, play games, and do research on animals because he wants to be a zoologist. I sometimes imagine my great grandkids going to a museum to see what a book looked like back in the golden age of paper books.

Two Interesting Library Tidbits 

While reading about libraries, I came across an article on the NPR website about a unique way the town of Basalt, Colorado is trying to save its public library. In addition to books, residents can check out seeds, yep, seeds.

Here in Knox County our public library is battling an interesting problem. Recently a reader found a bedbug in a book, prompting library officials to take action to have the main and all branch libraries inspected to make sure they are free of the little bloodsuckers. Such an extensive inspection will be expensive, so, to save money, they plan to contract with a “canine pest detection service.” Yep, they’ll use dogs to sniff out those little varmints.

Maybe a digital library will not be so bad. No bedbugs. And the books last forever in cyberspace.


  1. No bed bugs, but computer bugs?

    Thoughtful article, Louis. Like you, I'm a worrier and like you, I also prize real books made from real paper.

    But I recognize eReaders have advantages too, such as built-in dictionaries, perhaps an encyclopedia, and the ability to search. Note-taking isn't as convenient, but Androids and iPads can take audio notes.

    Maybe I want both.

  2. A brave new world for sure. But I do think there is less serendipity in digital browsing than in the old days when one flipped through the card catalogue, or better yet, wandered the stacks. It's not always finding what one is looking for but finding what one didn't know was out there.

  3. I like the feel of an old library, the subdued lighting and quiet, unlike the present harsh glare and clicking of keys. But I confess I'll soon attempt to check out a book on my new Nook. We'll see how that works.

  4. Always thought it was funny how librarians are paid well, yet a bookstore clerk does almost the same thing & is lucky to get more than minimum wage.

  5. Leigh, I’m still trying to take audio notes on my iPad.

    I also missing browsing the stacks in a library; browsing among local library eBooks on my iPad just isn’t the same.

    I now buy eBooks, though I still feel I don’t own them. I buy books that if they were paper books, I wouldn’t mind giving them away or even trashing them. We can’t escape the digital age, so, we might as well embrace it.

  6. Louis, you're right in that you don't buy eBooks– you license them. Most protected eBooks you can't give… you can only lend.

    The Library of Congress also forbids users of smart phones and tablets to 'jailbreak' their own phones. I've not heard of anyone arrested for it, but the potential is there.

  7. I am writing a library related piece this Wednesday, Louis. I will be interested to see if you cheer the changes I discuss, or are horrified.

    I love the feel of a paper volume, but a digital item can, theoretically, live unchanged forever. And that is pretty cool.

  8. As I mentioned, I'm a worrier. I'm also a technologist.

    So I ask myself this question: What if 'the cloud' disintegrates? What if it's cyber-attacked, accidentally or deliberately destroyed like the library of Alexandria? What if we're no longer able to access it? What if a thermonuclear 'event' happens, one that radiation kills not only flesh, but disrupts the electrons in silicon?

    The only backup…
    … might be…
    … books made of paper, parchment, vellum, or fabric.

    I know, I know… aren't I the cheerful one?

  9. Leigh, Mike Resncik edited a series of shoirt story colections of alternate history (Alternate Presidents, Alternate Generals, etc) and in Alternate Kennedys there was a hilarious story set far in the future. All computerized data was destroyed in a blast so historians were trying to piece together JFK's life based on articles in the newspapers that were never digitized, like the National Inquirer. Gave them quite an interesting view...

  10. I'm with you, Leigh. I firmly believe that at some point the grid will go down, and we will be known (should mankind live that long) 500 years from now as another Dark Age. For those who consider this pessimistic, I say it's historical: every empire has collapsed, leading to a massive loss of knowledge and technology. Why should we be any different?
    Disclaimer: I have a large library of physical books, and I have a kindle, too - interestingly, I have more ancient and very old books on the Kindle because they're free, whereas if I tried to buy them in physical copy, they would be exorbitant!


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