The future is libraries with no books

January 9, 2014 

I wonder what a digital library smells like.

I know what the libraries of my youth used to smell like. But the new bookless digital libraries, such as the Bexar County BiblioTech in San Antonio, are as different from those old libraries as the space shuttle is from a buggy.

The new library in Texas – reportedly the first public library of its kind – is described as similar to an Apple Store with rows of iMacs sitting on smooth, metal surfaces, and iPads mounted on a tangerine-colored bar. Hundreds of tablets and e-readers are available to be taken home by patrons with library cards.

The e-readers can be loaded with up to five books. That’s a lot easier to carry than a load or real books.

If I had to guess, I would say that the BiblioTech smells like new carpet, warm machines and the indistinct aroma of ozone. In other words, it probably smells like nothing.

The libraries I used to spend time in as a boy didn’t have gleaming metal surfaces and space-age machines. About the only electronic devices in those libraries were the telephones and maybe an overhead projector stored in the closet.

The old libraries consisted of wood, Formica and paper, lots of it. If you wanted to find a book, you went to a wooden cabinet with scores of long drawers filled with index cards – the card catalog.

You’d fish around among the cards, which were kept in alphabetical order, until you found the book you were looking for. Then, employing the ingenious Dewey decimal system, you would try to hunt it down in the stacks.

The library smelled like wood cleaner and wax, dust and steam heat vents. But mostly it smelled like old books.

That’s a funky, wonderful scent, a little sour but still beckoning, promising treasures between the bindings. Or it might promise nights of tortuous study on a report about the rubber trade in South America or the invention of the cotton gin.

But the library was a sanctuary, a place of strictly enforced silence, peopled by hushed readers and librarians expertly rubber-stamping the books being borrowed. Now those libraries are beginning to seem more and more obsolete, destined to be replaced by modern sleek versions like the one in San Antonio.

Frankly, that’s fine. Many of us will miss things about the traditional libraries but the bookless libraries make sense.

As the head librarian at BiblioTech notes, she has no problem with mis-shelved books getting lost forever in the stacks, pages ripped out of books and books borrowed but never returned by selfish patrons unintimidated by puny fines or threats of canceling their library cards. And while the high-tech computers, tablets and e-readers are initially expensive, they ultimately are cheaper than the cost of storing thousands of books.

Bexar County reportedly saved millions on architectural costs because the new library’s design didn’t have to include space to accommodate printed books.

This is the future of libraries. There’s no turning back, just the inexorable march forward to pristine well-lighted spaces humming with electronic devices that will store the wisdom of the ages – not to mention newspapers, the latest magazines, do-it-yourself manuals, highbrow literature, thrillers, mysteries and romance novels – in their shiny, skinny innards.

And access to the Internet probably will make silent libraries a thing of the past.

I can adjust when the time comes. But I’m wondering why, if the technology is so advanced, they can’t make an e-reader that smells like an old book.

James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by email, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.

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