Bodleian Library

Bodleian Library at Oxford University 

Deep in the heart of Texas, where, according to the 1941 song, the prairie sky is wide and high and the coyotes wail along the trail, an imaginative chapter is being written in the history of libraries. In Bexar County, the new library is devoid of printed books, and patrons seem quite happy. Instead of books packed on shelves, the new BiblioTech library’s collection of 18,000 titles is stored electronically. To read a book, a patron downloads one on his or her e-reader or on one of the 600 or more available for loan. It is the nation’s first all-digital library.

“We have maintained from the beginning that we are a digital library, not a bookless library,” Ashley Eklof, the head librarian, told The New York Times when the newspaper sent a reporter to investigate. But upon walking into the place, patrons might easily conclude they accidently stepped into an Apple store. With its bright, plastic-orange walls, abundant computer screens, and a staff in matching sportslike attire, BiblioTech hardly looks like a library. Maybe it looks like the future?

The Texas experiment is only one of many that libraries are conducting as they try to carve out a sustainable role for themselves in the changing world of books. The challenge they face is more daunting than budget cuts. To put it simply, if storing a book is a matter of gigabytes rather than linear feet of shelving and if getting a book is a matter of clicking rather than driving, what role — if any — will libraries have in the new world of e-books? Perhaps none. A columnist for Forbes magazine suggested it would be cheaper to close all public libraries and equip everyone with a Kindle and an Amazon Kindle Unlimited subscription.

Publishers, whom one would think could be counted among the friends of libraries, are certainly not helping. They worry that libraries stocked with e-books will make it so convenient to read that folks won’t buy books. No longer would patrons have to make a trip to the library, find parking, walk to a shelf for that recommended novel, and wait in line to check it out. A couple of clicks on a device, even while languishing in a bathtub, and — presto — the book is in one’s hands. E-book collections simplify library tasks as well: late items are a thing of the past because the library automatically retrieves the book, and e-books don’t wear out and don’t need to be taken out of circulation for repair.

As a result, the major book publishers — known in the business as the “big six” — who consent to sell e-books to libraries have adopted two draconian models: either they sell the books at a price as much as 10 times higher than the retail price or, in a more Bradburian fashion, provide e-books that self-destruct after they’ve been loaned out a specific number of times. One publisher, Simon & Schuster, is playing with a different model. In a yearlong pilot program, the publisher is offering its entire catalog to three New York City public libraries but limiting each book to one checkout at a time. In return, the electronic lending system provides patrons with an opportunity to buy the book — in short, turning the library into a retail operation.

In the models so far, the library doesn’t get to own an e-book in the same way it owns a paper book. Like other digital resources such as newspapers, journals, and magazines, the books are licensed for use on a contractual basis. In most of these agreements, the libraries may not preserve the contents, nor can they sell the books when they’re no longer needed or accept donated e-books. 

Librarians also fear they cannot safeguard patron privacy when it comes to e-books. Many opposed provisions of post-9/11 laws that permit government agencies to learn what books a reader checks out. But providers of e-books, like other internet companies, thrive on data and collect as much as they can. When a library supplies e-books through an outside firm, many librarians worry they are renouncing their long-held tradition of patron privacy.

Libraries, however, are doing their best to provide a selection of e-books under these difficult circumstances. More than 90 percent of the 16,400-plus public libraries in the United States have turned to a Cleveland-based company called OverDrive, which has amassed 2 million books from 5,000 publishers, to supply a selection of e-books to their patrons. But even OverDrive, with its market might, faces restrictions from publishers with new titles. For instance, the e-book of Santa Fe author Hampton Sides’ bestselling In the Kingdom of Ice is unavailable to library patrons in his hometown. Instead, more than 35 readers are waiting for a turn with one of the six paper copies on order.

Patrons, mostly unaware of what publishers are doing, complain about the dearth of e-book titles. This puts libraries on the defensive, as it implies they are the dinosaurs of the digital age. Douglas County Libraries, in Colorado, resorted to publishing an open letter about e-books. The library detailed how HarperCollins requires that books be repurchased after 26 uses and Random House has raised the price of new books by 300 percent. “That’s neither sensible nor sustainable,” reads the letter. “While the Douglas County Libraries will continue to buy print copies of popular titles published by the big six, we won’t be spending $120 for a single copy of an e-book.”

Some see the problem as the same one that brick-and-mortar stores face from internet competition. However, real-world stores can open internet operations and continue selling the same products. Unless matters change, libraries are being prevented from following a similar path. Even if libraries and publishers were to reach some suitable arrangement, the essential challenge to libraries remains: they are physical institutions in an increasingly cyber-oriented world.

This uncertain future weighs on the mind of the nation’s 366,894 library employees. There were two national gatherings of librarians this spring on this theme; tellingly, one of them was titled “Survival Summit.” Many librarians hope that traditional roles — such as building literacy, serving as community places, choosing what to collect and preserve, and advancing research and scholarship — will preserve libraries as we know them.

Others, however, seek to reinvent the library entirely. In the modest-sized Netherlands city of Delft, librarians are determined to make their institution “future-proof.” To do this, they abandoned “the idea that the medium we lend out determines what we are,” explained Erik Boekesteijn, who works for the library’s Communication and Innovation Department. “What does it matter whether we share our stories in the form of a book, a CD, a DVD, an MP3 player or MP3 file, or a work of art?” Further, the staff reimagined its library’s role not as a storehouse of information but as a guide — in short, turning the library from simply being a place to find information into a place where information is accessible in a wise and inviting style.

That concept resonates with Pat Hodapp, director of libraries for the City of Santa Fe. She believes that librarians, not buildings or collections, are what make libraries essential. “We can have all the e-books in the world, but what it comes down to is personal interaction,” she said. A sustainable library is comfortable to visit and offers professional guidance to obtain the information visitors seek.

Those at the top of the profession echo this mantra. “The thing that will still bring people into the building is the same thing that has brought them in the past, and that is the relationship with people who work in the library,” according to Sari Feldman, the incoming president of the American Library Association. “Increasingly, libraries of all kinds must be prepared to answer ‘What can the library do for me?’ instead of ‘What does the library have for me?’” ◀