Looking beyond building a digital, no-books library

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

I’m young for a librarian — 34 in a field where the median age is over 50. It should go without saying then that I’m not the least bit afraid of technology. Digital tools make me far more productive at what I do. However, as a member of the only profession dedicated to mastering, or at very least thinking about, the epistemology of all human discourses, I can tell you that books on a shelf arranged by the Dewey Decimal System (or Library of Congress Classification or UDC or Bliss or any other well-developed scheme) are an essential and invaluable architecture of human discovery and understanding.

Today, however, those books on shelves occupy a shrinking portion of library budgets in cities around the country. As Amanda Erickson reports in Next City’s Forefront feature this week, “The Next Chapter for Urban Libraries Is Here,” librarians are showing off new digital collections and finding creative ways of interacting with the public that integrate these resources into the community. In 2013, the first book-free public library opened in the suburbs of San Antonio, Texas. The mainstream and professional press has been breathless in reporting the popularity of BiblioTech Digital Library among the Texan population it serves. However, I can’t help but be underwhelmed by this description from the San Antonio Express-News: “When the school day ends, the crush begins at Bexar County BiblioTech.” In dense Philadelphia, where I work, our book-filled libraries are busy from open to close. When school lets out, they often operate at standing-room only.

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