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What Makes a Library a Library?

The San Antonion BiblioTech (Image courtesy NPR.org)
The San Antonion BiblioTech (Image courtesy NPR.org)

The latest controversy striking the tumultuous world of libraries (a very shocking place) is the announcement of a bookless library to open this fall in San Antonio, Texas. The new space will look and function more like an Apple store than what we would traditionally think of as a library, but how much does that matter when it comes to providing public access to information?

The San Antonio library, called BiblioTech, will be a long, open space with a sloping front desk on one side and rows of computer terminals on long tables in the center. A smaller counter will hold a line of smartphones, while the opposite side of the library will host a reading lounge. There will be very few shelves.

It’s not that the BiblioTech doesn’t have books; its books just come in a different form. The space will hold 50 computer terminals, a stock of laptops and tablets, and preloaded e-readers for customers to take home. All the information is still there; it just exists on more platforms than normal paper.

The proposed New York Public Library renovation (Image via elitedaily.com)
The proposed New York Public Library renovation (Image via elitedaily.com)

Can you still have a library if there are no print-and-bound volumes in it? The BiblioTech calls to mind the problem currently facing the New York Public Library’s main branch — as useful as technology is, library customers (and the public at large) still love their books. Critics complain that the NYPL’s plan to remove many of the books from its central location into a storage depot in New Jersey to make room for more computer terminals and a cafe is disrespectful to its heritage and turns it into “a glorified Starbucks,” according to the New York Times.

Yet libraries have already been trending more toward media centers than manuscript repositories. It only takes one glance at Rem Koolhaas’s Seattle Central Library, a crystalline glass structure, to realize that you’re looking at something different than a normal institution. The library features large, open reading spaces and over 400 public computer terminals. If it’s more like a Starbucks, so what? It ultimately serves its function as a public resource.

The Seattle Central Library (Image via wikipedia.org)
The Seattle Central Library (Image via wikipedia.org)

Maybe the more fundamental question is: what is a book? BiblioTech will host e-readers, which will doubtless become a more and more pervasive platform for literary consumption. Books can be read wholly online through a web browser, or downloaded as a PDF, or saved onto a smartphone. When it comes down to it, “book” is just a word for a structured collection of information. It has nothing to do with print or not. A library, as a collection of books, is just as mutable: it’s where we go to consume information and access our shared cultural history, whatever form it may take.

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