Today, in Bexar County, home to San Antonio, Texas’s lovely second city, they’re getting ready to open the United States’s first fully electronic public library. The new system will allow patrons to download thousands of e-texts from their homes. This digital library will also have a bright, shiny new high-tech central library branch where people can use the computers on hand, access the wireless for their own devices, or check out one of the systems numerous loaner e-readers. County Judge and library backer, Nelson Wolff, says that the library when open won’t look at all like a conventional library of the past, with their endless shelves of books, but instead will be something more in line with an Apple store.
“Paper books have lost their allure,” Wolff said in a recent interview on the My San Antonio website. “Future generations may have little use for them.”
I can’t help but think about this great old James Caan movie from the 1970s, Rollerball, where Caan’s futuristic sports star, Jonathan E. seeks the history of the corporations that run the planet by visiting his local library branch to do a little research and things don’t go quite the way he hoped.
Having spent most of my life working with books, I’d love to disagree with Wolff, laugh in his face, possibly give him a wedgie, tell him he doesn’t have a clue about what he’s talking about, and send him on his way, but that would be more fool me. I might have a passion for books, but I’m working in a withered field that’s been drying out for a good 15 years. That last gasp isn’t quite here, but with Amazon for paper, the Kindle, the Nook, and of course, the dreaded iPad, I know my days working with paper books are numbered. While this does make me a little sad, as I sit here in the tar pit, a mammoth slowly sinking into irrelevance, I can’t help but think that a lot of this technology is really kind of cool.
These days, I manage a university book store and as anyone in academics can tell you, the majority of school libraries are moving as fast as they can to digitize their collections. On the economic end with the rise of the iPad, with its seamless ability to integrate multimedia educational materials, textbooks are suddenly not only irrelevant, they’re shockingly primitive. This is the last year we are going to have college freshmen who haven’t had a iPad since they started high school. It’s not even a decade until we have our first generation of college students who have been using iPads, or some other kind of tablet, since kindergarten. What use are these students going to have for paper? Especially paper that will cost them several hundred dollars to purchase? And certainly in the public schools, administrators aren’t going to waste what little funds they have on paper when they can get every kid a tablet, most likely an iPad, and access to infinite educational opportunities. Clearly e-books are the future for academics, and as those same kids grow into adult consumers, it’s equally clear they will buy electronics for casual reading as well. With all that in mind, what Bexar County is trying makes sense. It’s economical and allows wider distribution of materials to a wider audience. I do have to say though that patterning the library design after an Apple store makes me just a little queasy from an aesthetic point of view.
While I wish the folks in Bexar county luck in their new endeavor, I’d like to take a minute to salute the fine people of the San Antonio Public Library District. Their massive central library, 25 branch libraries, and a small fleet of bookmobiles, collections of books, music, video, art, and even a tool library, the San Antonio public library system is one of the finest in Texas. Between the Bexar project and San Antonio’s traditional paper-based system, the people of South Texas are redefining the definition of library itself.
I don’t actually believe paper books are in any real danger of going away completely, so don’t worry fellow bibliophiles. Yes, we’re going to see much fewer mass market books in the coming years, but children’s and teen book sales are strong in paper. Teens might fall back as the iPad generation gets older, but books for children, especially young children are going to continue to be dominated by Seuss and crew in firm paper versions. Plus, the quiet book giant Scholastic sells strongly through schools. For adults, you’re going to see fewer books in paper, but they’re going to be ultra-cheap disposables of the latest Dean Koontz title or on the other end, an increase in artisan books, put together with fine binding, good paper, illustrations, and real care. The end of paper as mass market king might be coming, but the printed book is unlikely to ever go completely away.