In the fascinating short story, The Library of Babel, the brilliant author and intellectual, Jorge Luis Borges, described the ultimate bibliophile’s library: a library with millions of identical hexagonal rooms lined with bookshelves, filled with books — no two of them identical, extending eternally. In contrast to the infinite Library of Babel, the BiblioTech public library that opened in San Antonio, Texas in October of 2014 is finite and oxymoronically does not have a single printed book. You read that correctly — there are no books; the library landscape is devoid of bookshelves, book trucks (with the squeaky swivel casters), neat stacks of books piled on large wooden tables, or people draped over chairs lost in deep reading. Welcome to the creation of the 21st century world: the completely digital library. And the Bibliotech has the distinction of being the first bookless library (yes, sadly that is now a new term) in the United States. (The first all digital library was actually a Tucson-Pima, Arizona library branch that opened in 2002; but after a bibliophile-led revolt, staff members brought back the cherished printed book, thus the branch lost its claim to the title.)
At first glance, the new BiblioTech resembles an Apple or Microsoft store more than a traditional library. It takes a while for a book lover to recover from the initial shock — “WTF: where are all the freaking books?” Unlike Borges’s sprawling library, the BiblioTech library is small, taking up a mere 4,000 square feet. Within that small space, the library boasts a catalog of 10,000 e-book titles and is stocked with 20 iPads, 48 computers, and 500 e-readers. Library members check out e-books (up to five at a time) that are loaded onto one of the e-books.
Building a completely digital library is extremely cost-effective. Because the library floors do not need to be built to hold the enormous weight of books, the cost to design and build the structure is dramatically lower than a typical library that houses printed books. The BiblioTech cost $2.3 to build, versus $3 to $4 million for a small branch library, or more than $100 million for a large downtown library. Interestingly, there are no savings in purchasing digital titles: the library is charged the same rate as if it were buying printed editions. These economies are having an impact on libraries all over the world. In an NPR interview, Sarah Houghton who directs California’s San Rafael Public Library, predicted that 10 to 20% of libraries will follow BiblioTech’s lead in the next ten years. Houghton foresees the extinction of the library with books within a century. And that’s not the end of the disturbing news: millions of books will be destroyed in the process — what a tremendous loss; to paraphrase the well-known African proverb, “when a library dies, a civilization burns to the ground.”
And there you have it, dear reader: the library without any books. And depending on your perspective, it is either a dream come true, or as the librarians from the Library of Babel would see it — a horrifying nightmare.
For further reading: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges, New Directions (2007)
Smoked Stacks: Books are gone, but screens are bright in tomorrow’s library by Josh Sanburn, Time magazine, October 7, 2013