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Is a 'bookless' library coming to a branch near you? Signs point to ... maybe [Commentary]

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When people think of a library, they usually picture rooms filled with books.

That seems fair, since the word comes from "librarius," which means "of books."

But one library recently made headlines for having no books at all – at least, in the physical sense.

The "BiblioTech" of San Antonio, Texas, which opened in September 2013, was billed as the country's first completely bookless library.

It made waves not just for its digital-only collection but for its appearance, which the Associated Press said "looks a lot like an Apple store," right down to librarians wearing "geek-chic" hoodies and matching shirts.

As someone who has always loved books and libraries, I was both intrigued by, and ambivalent about, this story.

I have never owned an electronic book, and the one time I borrowed an e-reader from a friend so I could read "The Hunger Games" when it was all checked out at the library, I was not bowled over.

There was nothing satisfying about finishing the book, because you couldn't tell how much you had read, or easily flip back through pages.

The book didn't have its own "feel" or font or cover; it was just words on a screen, which is something I look at all day. To be honest, it felt a little like work.

But obviously, a lot of people like e-readers, so I decided to ask Harford County Public Library Director Mary Hastler about all this.

She was totally enthusiastic about San Antonio's BiblioTech.

"I think it's a super concept, because everyone thinks libraries are for books but libraries are so much more than that," Hastler said. "Something without archives going out is very cool and something that is very valuable to customers. I think it's awesome and I hope it's very successful for them."

So is Harford destined to have a bookless library? Hastler seemed open to the possibility – if the funding was there, of course.

"It's certainly something we would consider, especially if there was an area of the county where the community would feel that would work well," she said. "We are always looking at whatever the newest thing would be to bring to Harford County."

She explained that there have been many kinds of libraries that lend objects other than books, such as toys or farming equipment.

"It just depends on your community," she said.

Hastler has considered, for example, the idea of a library aimed at the business community, perhaps repurposing an existing library and "turning it into something tech-y."

Books don't seem destined to vanish from libraries anytime soon, though. Circulation of books and other items continues to rise in Harford's branches, even as computer use grows simultaneously.

Hastler said she sees technology as just another option for readers, like a drive-through window tacked on to a restaurant.

Time magazine noted an Arizona branch tried to go bookless in 2002, but ultimately brought back printed materials by popular demand.

Harford's library director pointed out her nightstand had several physical books as well as an iPad holding another 25 or so books.

"I think, just like any other technology, there is space for both," she said.

And with demand for the printed word staying high, the Harford library system has no intention of cutting back on its shelves of paperbacks and hardcovers, she said.

The ball is in the publishers' court.

"As long as they are making those books, we are still offering them," she said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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