BiblioTech: Library of the Future or Computer Lab?
Many of you have likely read about the “all digital” public library that opened in Bexar County, Texas just last week. BiblioTech, as it's appropriately named, proudly boasts the title of “The Country's First Digital Public Library,” but what does that really mean? As it suggests, it's a building completely devoid of books. When Bexar County residents venture into this establishment, they won't hear a quiet shuffle of papers but a muted hum of dozens of computers, tablets, and eReaders, and perhaps a few disgruntled murmurs of patrons attempting to use them. The library's mission is to give its patrons the “opportunity to access technology and its applications for the purposes of enhancing education and literacy, promoting reading as recreation and equipping residents of our community with necessary tools to thrive as citizens of the 21st century.” A noble declaration, no doubt, but I can't help but wonder how many of its 1.7 million residents will be intimidated by the overwhelming technological presence. They have a modest collection of 10,000 eBooks, eResources, Periodicals and other online-only materials, but a quick search showed their collection is far from extensive (they don't have the Harry Potter series, for instance). After perusing their website, I found that a basic set of computer skills are required to even begin to utilize the establishment. This might not seem like a big deal to those of us who grew up with computers, but it can be quite daunting to technology newbies. The simple act of acquiring a library card is now an online process (and the link is not easy to find, I might add), and if you wanted to download a resource, you would first need to sift through five different collection links until you found the correct area.
But the thing that's bothering me most about this library is that it has turned what is supposed to be a community center into a computer lab. Traditional libraries are places where people come to interact, to learn, to feel safe. To be fair, this library does offer computer classes and story-time for kids. But are there play areas? Pop-up books? Socialization programs? I can't seem to grasp the idea of reading a children's book on an eReader. It seems so impersonal. What if the book is supposed to have fuzzy pages or holes where little characters can peek through? WHAT ABOUT POP-UP BOOKS?! I digress. A completely digital library means new and potentially expensive issues in acquisition (DVDs, reference materials, computer software). And what happens if the internet goes down? The entire building is useless! A few years ago, I was working at a public library during a power outage that affected most of Long Island. After a couple of days, the power was restored to the building but unfortunately the internet was still down. But despite the lack of internet, parents still brought their children in to play. People checked out books, DVDs, and, CDs. Programs continued as usual. It was just a minor inconvenience at an establishment that is so much more than computers. When you take away the internet at BiblioTech, what are you left with?
My vision for the “library of the future” is a combination of both technological resources and print collections. I'm sure the number of print items will decrease as we move deeper into the digital age, but to get rid of them completely? That just doesn't seem feasible! My professor said something that really resonated with me and I think it's appropriate here: “If someone wants to be heard, remembered, and have a lasting influence, the goal is the library shelf.”