A Bookless Library Makes as Much Sense as a Foodless Kitchen

Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam. He is completing a book on the international challenges America faces in the 21st century.


Apple Reports Quarterly Earnings

Libraries, like bookstores and and publishers, are confronting the e-book world and they are reacting in various ways. Some of those ways are really stupid.

Texas has seen the future of the public library, and it looks a lot like an Apple Store: Rows of glossy iMacs beckon. iPads mounted on a tangerine-colored bar invite readers. And hundreds of other tablets stand ready for checkout to anyone with a borrowing card.

Even the librarians imitate Apple’s dress code, wearing matching shirts and that standard-bearer of geek-chic, the hoodie. But this $2.3 million library might be most notable for what it does not have — any actual books.

That makes Bexar County’s BibiloTech the nation’s only bookless public library, a distinction that has attracted scores of digital bookworms, plus emissaries from as far away as Hong Kong who want to learn about the idea and possibly take it home.

“I told our people that you need to take a look at this. This is the future,” said Mary Graham, vice president of South Carolina’s Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. “If you’re going to be building new library facilities, this is what you need to be doing.”

What’s the point of building a library facility that consists of terminals and mobile devices that you can’t take home? Aside from making everyone feel like they’re living in the future, all it does is throw away a lot of money on nothing.

There’s already something called a bookless library. It’s called the internet.

A digital library doesn’t require physical space. All it needs is server space. And digital rights management.

There is no possible reason to have a bookless library. It accomplishes nothing. If the goal is to give researchers access to material, instead of microfilm, then they can set up accounts and access them remotely.

If the goal is to give people access to books they can take home, that can be done through lending features and no library can stock enough tablets to lend to everyone.

The usual justification involves giving low income minorities access to the internet. But that’s already being done and doesn’t have to involve sidelining the books.

All it really does is make everyone feel futuristic. But there’s a real cost. Not just in money.

Libraries are meant to concentrate on books. The bookless digital efforts has seen libraries sell off or eliminate their physical book collections in order to buy more laptops and tablets.

In the New York Public Library, rare books have been sold off and rare physical books have been made harder to access for researchers in a library system that cares about nothing except the ‘future’.

The library system works badly, but its concentration on futuristic gimmicks makes the reputations of whoever is running the show.

  • Lizzie Basara

    I remember the Bookmobile would come once a week in the summer – it was exciting to get to pick out a book and take it home. I am so thankful for books :)

    • unionville

      I’m thankful for books too. Curling up with a laptop just isn’t quite as enjoyable. Too bulky.

  • Linda

    we must get our young people to understand the love of BOOKS…now before it’s too late!

  • Craig S. Maxwell

    As a used book dealer, this story’s near and dear to my heart. After San Diego’s oldest used book bookstore folded a few years back, I wrote the following:

    Last year, Wahrenbrock’s Book House, San Diego’s oldest and best used bookstore, closed
    its doors forever. Yet its end is indicative of not only a troubled retail
    industry, but of the growing indifference toward reading and literature in
    general. I reflected on the meaning of this in what follows below…

    A REQUIEM FOR READING?

    The memorial service for
    my grandfather, Vernon Wahrenbrock, was sparsely attended; the inevitable consequence,
    I suppose, of his having lived nearly a century. All his friends and much of
    his family were gone. We, his survivors, were there of course. And so were a
    few of the folks he’d gotten to know at the rest home. But the only other
    person to pay his respects that day was Chuck Valverde. It was February 18th, 2008, and
    already he was pale and thin. Still, I had no way of knowing that within six
    months I and hundreds of others would be attending a memorial service for Chuck
    himself.

    The link between these
    very dissimilar but remarkable men was, of course, Wahrenbrock’s Bookhouse –
    the shop my grandfather founded in 1935 and that Chuck had operated (and later
    owned) since 1967. Wahrenbrock’s had always been the flagship of San Diego’s
    used bookstore fleet, and one of the best used bookstores on the West Coast.
    Recently, many San Diegans were shocked and saddened to hear that the store
    itself was gone – its doors closed forever.

    The store’s sudden
    demise, falling as it did hard on the heels of its owners’ deaths, has provoked
    thought and memory. But this is due to more than mere chronological proximity.
    Here, smack on the front page of the San Diego Union-Tribune, was a story about
    a small business – Wahrenbrock’s – gone south. Why? Other failed ventures don’t
    get that kind of attention. Sure, at 74 the shop was old – at least by San
    Diego standards. But no one had paid any attention to my father’s business when
    it closed back in the nineties, and it had been around since 1896. No, there
    was something about Wahrenbrock’s, and perhaps about used bookshops in general
    (which have been steadily disappearing for twenty years or more) that led to
    all the attention and provoked our collective lament. I think I know the
    answer, but my explanation will require a brief detour through the past.

    I, too, was destined to
    become a used bookman. On one occasion during my informal yet invaluable
    apprenticeship with Brian Lucas at Adams Avenue Bookstore a co-worker, while
    casually thumbing through a volume said, “You know, this is a pretty durable
    piece of technology.” He was right. The technology to which he referred was the
    codex book – the book as we commonly know it. I was amazed at the profundity of
    that simple observation.

    In ancient Greece and
    Rome, books had been printed on long rolls (think of cellophane or aluminum
    wrap) called scrolls. This made the reproduction of them (not to mention dog
    earing pages!) very difficult. But even after the eighth century when most them
    had been copied into codex form – individual pages sewn or glued at one edge to
    a spine with hinged boards – the difficulty of reproduction remained.
    Fortunately, both the inconvenience and the scarcity of this commodity were
    made more bearable by the paucity of need; few people could read. Literacy was
    largely the province of clerics and scholars. It wasn’t until around 1450 when
    Gutenberg invented moveable type that this technical difficulty was overcome,
    and in what must be one of the most momentous historical coincidences of all
    time, Gutenberg’s innovation coincided with the work of another man whose
    teachings and followers would create for
    it an inexhaustible market: Martin Luther. Luther’s theology made the Book –
    the Bible, that is – more important for believers than was the Church itself.
    And this, of course, meant that people must become acquainted with it, must
    read it. In short, for Luther and his followers, reading was close to being a
    prerequisite for knowing God.

    Talk about an incentive!
    But whether he was right or wrong, one can easily imagine the effect this
    doctrine had on the then fledgling publishing industry. Printing presses popped
    up all over Protestant Europe, and by the beginning of the Sixteenth century,
    had produced over nine million volumes! A revolution had occurred, and one the
    chief instigators was the need to read. Literacy spread like wildfire; the
    world would never be the same.

    As Europe’s greatest
    progeny, America could not help but share in the culture of the book. Here, the
    changes which began with the Protestant reading revolution received the added
    impetus of powerful political theories which clearly delineated the natural
    rights of individual men. Included among these was, of course, self-governance,
    and this in turn required that every citizen be at least minimally acquainted
    with its fundamental principles. Red schoolhouses sprang up from east to west,
    and the teachers in them helped their students learn. But the primary vehicle
    of learning was always the book. It would be no exaggeration to say that from
    colonial times through at least the first half of the twentieth century the the
    heart, mind and soul of America was formed by books.

    …Was formed. But is it still? Since the Second World War many have
    been skeptical, and not without reason. Already hurt by the pseudo-philosophical
    “post-modern” literary theories still fashionable in academia (one
    all-too-representative professor I had the misfortune to speak with told me
    that he teaches his students that Shakespeare, comic books and and a deck of
    playing cards all possess the same degree of literary merit), books and reading
    have been further damaged by electronic competitors: movies, television, and
    worst of all, the Internet. Advocates of online reading argue that literature
    will still be read and that only the medium – not the message – has changed.
    But when these same tools can with equal ease, and in a split second, conjure
    up games, videos, movies, photographs, TV shows, phone conversations and every
    other conceivable form of cheap digital distraction, its difficult to see how
    attention-demanding literature can keep up. Veteran Wahrenbrock’s bookseller
    Jan Tonessen put it concisely: “We’re going from a culture that was once
    dominated by this” – and he pointed to the words on a page – “ to this” – and
    he then motioned to a photographic image.

    In a recent lecture at
    Rice University, another skeptic, America’s best known bookseller and Pulitzer
    Prize winning author Larry McMurtry, mourned what he sees as the end of an era.
    “My theme is a sad one. It’s the end of reading. I had always thought that
    books may end, but reading would not. I’m not so sure anymore.” He continued,
    “It’s just sad that what is being left behind is a very beautiful culture, the
    culture of the book. I think it’s gone, I don’t think it will come back,” he
    said. “My bookshop has become a temple. It’s not a commercial real estate
    anymore. They come in and hold a book as if they’re holding a talismanic object
    from a past culture. And, in a way, they are.”

    Sure, many people will
    continue to buy books on line. But utterly absent from such impersonal, sterile
    transactions is the irreplaceable experience – the romance of browsing – with all of the attendant smells and textures
    among out-of-print books on old wooden shelves, and the ever present possibility
    of stumbling across that unexpected work of genius.

    And public libraries
    will probably continue to exist in some form or other. But they too are
    increasingly yielding to popular demands for contemporary media, and ultimately
    this means fewer books. Just a few weeks ago, a customer asked me if I had a
    specific volume from Will and Ariel Durant’s magnificent The Story of Civilization. He said he tried to find it out at the
    library but was told that they no longer carry the set. The reason: it wasn’t popular
    enough.

    Wahrenbrock’s Bookhouse
    was San Diego’s oldest and most distinguished inventory of “talismanic
    object[s] from a past culture.” And the question that faces us in the wake of
    its demise is not can we survive
    without stores like it, but what must we
    be if the answer is yes. What are we without the past? Until recently
    America, along with the rest of the West, had been guided by the seminal ideas,
    emotions and desires, the stories, poems and annals that silently and
    unobtrusively reside between two covers until they are opened. So far we have
    had only had a foretaste of what will happen if they remain closed, and it is
    bitter.

    Craig S. Maxwell

    Maxwell’s House of Books

    8285 La Mesa Blvd.

    La Mesa, Ca 91941

    619-462-3387

    maxwellshouseofbooks@gmail.com

    • Daniel Greenfield

      Many used book stores have also vanished on this side of the coast. I’m not sure it’s even a viable business in the Amazon era

  • laura r

    reading from a laptop is hard on the eyes. the movement of the screen destroys the nervous system, interferes w/sleep. reading a normal book or magazine is relaxing. the internet is great as you can access almost anything. i dont want a kindle, i draw the line there.

    • Daniel Greenfield

      Yes the refresh rate can be wearing. e-ink readers are better, but still not as good as a book

  • SCREW SOCIALISM

    Teacherless schools.

    Each student learns at their own pace – and Live Teaches would be available on a Chat – like getting help from Amazon for your purchase.

  • SCREW SOCIALISM

    Nothing, yet, can beat the feel of an open book.. Smooth, cool, sharp.

  • worldwatchman

    An EMP and it’s done. A terminal blacking out part of a city and it’s done. A broken computer and it’s done. A person thinking this is the future is mentally done.

  • Wave of the future

    You lose info on the internet and if you don’t have electricity, you can’t read your books. Libraries without books is just plain stupid. And I also remember the thrill of the Bookmobile … nothing can replace it – the smell of new and old books, of air conditioning in the Bookmobile… Nope, computers will never do it for me. They also make one go blind. The future is books, not computers.