NewportBeachLibrarylogoRelated to yesterday’s story about whether libraries could be replaced by e-book readers comes a story that one California public library branch is considering doing away with all of its books. The LA Times reports that, as California faces $15 million in library budget cuts, one branch of the Newport Beach library system might remove all its books (though books could be requested remotely to be delivered for checkout the next day) while continuing to provide all its other services as a “community center”.

In Newport Beach, which has four city libraries, officials analyzed how patrons use them. Most visit the branches to study, to plug their laptops into work spaces or to use computers with Internet connections.

Few, however, actually pulled books from the shelves.

The Motherboard blog follows up, pointing out the library system’s response to the inevitable firestorm provoked by the LA Times article. The library points out that the Balboa branch only accounts for 6% of the overall usage of the 4-library system, and was thinking of moving the facilities out of their current 82-year-old building and into a new community center. The people who do use the branch use it for a lot more than just books

Thus, the concept of a study center with computers, Wi-Fi, study tables, comfy chairs, and DVD and CD loans began to develop. The branch might not house stacks of books (it still could – we’re still reviewing our options), but library patrons could “order” books from the large Central Library (located about four miles away) and have them delivered to Marina Park the next day. This branch could be construed as a “digital library,” but the Newport Beach Public Library system would have plenty of books and other printed materials readily available for borrowing

Certainly modern libraries do a lot more than just books. And given how much library book collections can cost to maintain, and how much usage patterns are shifting toward other media, it’s not surprising that some libraries might be considering doing away with books altogether at some of their locations. (Found via Slashdot.)

My own Springfield Missouri library system has a small satellite branch located on the historic downtown Park Central Square. It doesn’t have more than one or two traditional “shelves”—mostly just racks lining the walls with individual books faced out—and I don’t think it has more than a few hundred books altogether, but it does have a dozen computer workstations, wifi, and plenty of comfortable chairs. It’s also only a few hundred feet from the downtown terminal where all the bus routes intersect, which makes it a very convenient place to request books be sent via the web for later pickup.

As e-books become more common and paper books less used, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more libraries moving this direction in the future.


  1. There will be more than a few taxpayers asking why their money supports libraries that do not stock books. If libraries evolve towards this model they will become even more vulnerable to budget cutting than now.

  2. The article (and many comments I’ve seen on the other day’s library thread) suggest that libraries are steadily becoming “community centers with books.” Remove most or all of the physical books… and you still have a community center. But you have the option of paring down some of those functions to other locations and sources, putting some functions online (and providing as much Internet access as possible), and saving some money in the process. This makes perfect sense to me.

  3. “… and how much usage patterns are shifting toward other media …”

    Where is the evidence for this usage pattern shift in the “modern” library? Our public library’s ebook/eaudio usage only accounts for 1.5% of total circulation – less than our art collection. Hennepin County Library reported only 132,000 ebook/eaudio downloads out of 17.5 million items circulated in 2010 – a whopping .7% of their 2010 circulation. The impact of ebooks/eaudio on library material usage is statistical inconsequential and we in the library community need to stop obsessing about being “relevant” and do what is right by our patrons and buy what they use – physical materials.

  4. @JRL:

    That’s a misleading figure, usage is most certainly miniscule for digital circulation at libraries, but the reason is not necessarily that patrons don’t want them. Most libraries buy into cookie cutter digital providers which give patrons access to a (relatively) small collection of books. These books, by and large, will not work on the Kindle. (Which while not the only platform, is popular / has a significant market share). Most people I know who own readers were not interested in ebooks on the computer, which cuts out a portion of potential patrons. There’s also the issue of enforced scarcity. Each books has a limited number of ‘copies’ which patrons can ‘borrow’ at any one time. This is largely understandable as it attempts to replicate the current system of physical book scarcity, but the collection is so limited that the few books with broader interest seem to have at least 7-8 patrons on the waiting already. And, unlike physical books, patrons do not have to return them and have no fear of late penalties. This means that a patron may be inclined to simply let their checkout of a digital book go on for the maximum allowable time, meaning in the grand scheme that it can take quite a while to get access to a borrowing slot for an ebook. (I speak of experience with the local libraries in my area only — Northern Illinois.)

    Basically there are more barriers to digital circulation at libraries than that of patron interest.

  5. I suggest the library community is doing right by it’s own members only. It’s all about self justification. Not that I find that an obnoxious thing to do ! I would do the same thing if I were in the same position. But as long as we call a spade a spade.

  6. Howard, I think if the librarians are analyzing what materials their patrons are using and planning their purchases accordingly, that’s hardly “self justification”. I thought giving your customers what they want was a good business practice.

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