(MintPress) – A Texas library is planning on ridding itself of books, opting instead to manage electronic tablet distribution to the community. The bookless library will be the first of its kind in the nation, prompting celebration among those in the community who see themselves as forward-thinking and on the edge of technology.
“We are trailblazing,” County Judge Nelson Wolff told the San Antonio Express, referring to the program as a needed component of the suburban library system of San Antonio.
But is the trailblazing a move in the right direction? If bookless libraries spread throughout the nation, low-income children — and adults — without the means to electronic tablets will be impacted due to lack of access.
A 2010-11 study conducted by the American Library Associations indicates that 67 percent of libraries offered access to ebooks — a 12 percent increase from 2009. And while that may be the case, the study addressed the inability of libraries to offer the service on a widespread scale, as not all users have personal access to ebook technology.
With continued funding cuts, libraries are forced to decide where to allocate money — for ebook tablets or the management and purchase of the library’s famed item: books. Cuts to libraries in more than 40 states have totalled $50 million in one year, representing the crisis facing libraries today.
Libraries exist today, in part, to offer technology to those who do not have it. Ninety-nine percent of libraries throughout the country offer public access to computers and Internet, according to the American Library Association study.
“As U.S. public libraries emerge from the aftermath of the Great Recession, they continue to provide vital public access to computers and the Internet, so critical to millions of people negatively affected by the economic downturn,” the report states.
The act of supplying Internet access in the vast majority of U.S. libraries indicates there’s a need for technology among users.
The state of libraries in America
Library use, especially in the midst of a recovering economy, has emerged as a vital public service for millions — from children to the elderly.
Nationwide, 81 percent of Americans impacted by the economy were card carrying library members, according to a 2010 study by the Online Computer Library Center.
A report released in 2012 by the Center for an Urban Future indicated that the number of New Yorkers using the public library system was increasing, with widespread use among immigrants and students turning to the library for help, by way of tutoring and other resources, for their education.
“By reaching thousands of children on a regular basis, libraries already serve as an important complement to the public schools,” David Giles, research director at the Center for an Urban Future said at a hearing before the New York City Council. “They are a trusted resource for immigrants. And they reach countless numbers of elderly residents.”
The American library system stands with a simple, yet profound, purpose: to provide resources for information purposes to the general public, under the assumption that all Americans should have access to such. Taking the book out the library — and requiring a special device to access information — would hamper that very purpose.
As libraries adapt and evolve within the digital age, many are upgrading and rebranding themselves. In San Antonio, it’s through the bookless library, yet that very act takes away another key role that libraries play in today’s societies. Molly Raphael, president of the American Library Association, says libraries are changing to become community centers — and she sees it as a step in the right direction.
“Libraries not only benefit their users individually,” Raphael wrote in a piece published by the Huffington Post. “They also act as community hubs, bringing people together and connecting them to worlds beyond their communities. Libraries offer more than just books; they are community centers where everyone has access to programs and services that fuel lifelong learning.”
Raymond Santiago of the Miami-Dade Public Library System agrees, recognizing that the library is evolving into an area that serves the community in many more ways than one.
“We’re seeing libraries move toward producing information, not only consuming information,” he told the Knight Foundation. “We see libraries becoming centers of civic engagement.”
Who is driving the ebook movement?
Libraries across America, like other public sectors, have been the subject of steep cuts. In 2011, 21 states bore the brunt of cuts in state aid for public libraries, with more than 50 percent of those cuts consuming 10 percent of the library systems’ budget, according to a 2011 State of America’s Libraries Report.
Clearly, there is a funding issue. The question now is how libraries — and those doing business with them — will handle that.
Penguin Group, one of the nation’s largest publishing companies, launched a pilot program with New York and Brooklyn libraries this past summer. Through the agreement, Penguin distributed 15,000 ebooks to the library system.
It was viewed as a charitable move, intended to help out the New York Public Library System during a time of steep budget cuts. Penguin promoted it as a philanthropic project, and the library welcomed it as an additional free resource at a time of need.
“This deal begins to reverse a trend that was going in the opposite and wrong direction,” Anthony Marks, president of the New York Public Library System, “where publishers were withdrawing from making titles available to libraries to lend.”
Yet, like in the case of Texas, the year-long program didn’t benefit the whole of New York library users. Instead, it catered to those who have access to tablet readers. The question is: Why would they donate a product that isn’t available, realistically, to all?
The program is only slated for one year of operation. When the time is up, the library will be asked to purchase the books from Penguin. Which, if current trends are any indication, could likely happen. It’s good business for Penguin looking to expand their new product line.
And they’re not the ones hopping on the bandwagon. OverDrive is considered the first distributor of ebooks to libraries, supplying more than 1,500 libraries throughout the nation. They’ve now been joined 3M, Baker and Taylor and Follet, who have also made the library system their distribution target.
While the simple act of providing a service and making a profit is not flawed, it becomes dangerous to the system when the products sold by such companies eat up public funding intended to provide access for all. And when precedents are set, such as the all-ebook library in Texas, there’s reason to examine where the future of the library system is headed — and who will benefit.