We knew it would come this … eventually. Did we not? Honestly, I figured we had a good five years ahead of us before libraries began opening their doors with nary a physical book in sight. Shows what I know.

From Gizmodo this afternoon comes the half shocking, half predictable news that the Bexar County satellite office, which sits about seven miles south of the Alamo, will soon become one of the nation’s first bookless libraries.

A Bexar County judge by the name of Nelson Wolff is the self-described book lover who came up with the idea, which isn’t actually limited to just one building: Wolff has ambitions “to launch the nation’s first bookless public library system” that he’s calling BiblioTech, according to an article in the San Antonio Express-News. “If you want to get an idea what it looks like,” Wolff says in the article,” go into an Apple store.”

An artist’s rendering of the proposed BibioTech’s interior

The county says it will need a minimum of $250,000 to purchase its first 10,000 e-book titles, according to Wolff. And that doesn’t include any necessary architecture or construction fees. (Early estimates for the completion of the first library are coming in at around $1 million.) Assuming the first BiblioTech location actually opens, library patrons will have access to one of 100 e-readers, which they’ll be allowed to check out and take home for two weeks at a time.

And while there’s no word just yet about which specific e-reader make and model the BiblioTech system plans to stock, the Express-News article does mention that the devices retail for about $100. (And since we know how much public libraries love their B&N devices, that sounds like a Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight to me, but that’s just a guess.)

This coming Tuesday, January 15, Wolff plans to go before the Bexar County Commissioners Court, where he’ll request the “[approval of] several measures to launch BiblioTech,” according to the Express-News.


  1. At least this library should be able to purchase eBooks at the same price as other eBook customers, correct? They lend the eReader hardware that happens to have the requested eBook installed on it. It will be interesting to see if publishers have a problem with this model.

  2. What a disturbing idea. I can see if they had a few computers and spent the rest on eaders, but opening up a tax funded Apple store with 100 ereaders?! Seriously?! Why even bother? It’ s like opening a library with only 100 books in it, since only 100 patrons would be able to borrow one at a time.

    I hope they won’t be Nooks. My libray has 6 Nooks that are each preloaded with a few books: one for YA, one for non fiction, etc., which is a very idiotic way to go about it. Naturally, the non-fiction one is the one that nobody ever borrows, the others are always gone.

  3. Hi Frank – No, not exactly. Libraries have to pay quite a bit more for e-books than a regular customer buying the same book at retail would. All the publishers have different policies, more or less. But if they’re a Big Six imprint, they don’t like selling to libraries at all, so they pretty much go out of their way to make it as difficult and/or expensive as possible. (Or, in some cases, they refuse to sell to libraries at all.)

    As to your second point (patrons having their requested e-books loaded onto a device they can borrow), that’s actually not how most libraries have been operating so far, although I don’t know how BiblioTech plans to operate. At most public libraries that lend e-readers, the devices actually have a selection of books that have already been loaded onto them. So when a patron borrows one of the e-readers, s/he’s stuck with whatever books the library previously chose to load onto it. Kind of goofy, right?

    Of course, your average public library can’t afford to have its own native app built, which is why most libraries work with OverDrive when it comes to lending out the rest of their e-book collection. But again, it remains to be seen what route BiblioTech will take with all of that.

  4. Xendula – I don’t believe they plan on having *only* 100 e-readers; that was just the figure used by the judge in the newspaper story, presumably to give the reporter a rough idea of how much that end of process would cost. And judging from the architectural renderings, it looks like they plan on having lots of computers. (The artist seems to think they’ll be iMacs!)

  5. Essentially, that “library” will be a free Internet Cafe.
    Not necessarily a bad idea, depending on where its located.
    It might even address some of the concerns of those obsessed with the “digital divide”.
    I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for an all-iMac facility, though. The million-dollar budget clearly precludes that. 😉
    Those projects tend to go to low-cost bidders so you’re more likely to see Dell or Asus gear than Apple. They’ll be lucky to slot in a row of Macs.
    And iPads; I can see them lining up a few rows of iPad Minis.

  6. @Dan, let’s not dismiss too quickly the possibility of library cost reduction via loaning hardware. This is unexplored territory. There will be test cases that will tell us whether this is a viable tactic for libraries.
    Here’s an admittedly wild example. We start not with Amazon but with the iBookstore because the terms may be more flexible. Those terms are here:
    http://www.apple.com/legal/itunes/us/terms.html (last paragraph is on iBookstore)
    Next, we imagine a wealthy and famous person buying five iPad minis, loading them with a selection of eBooks from the iBookstore (a celebrity playlist if you will). We are within the terms as they allow us to install purchases on up to five (5) devices.
    Finally, the celeb donates those five iPad minis to a library which loans them out to patrons. Gifting libraries with books has a long history and is a tax deduction as well. We’re simply extending that transition.
    Note that Apple only requires that our use of things purchased in the iBookstore be for personal and non-commercial purposes. Beyond that, they assert that they are not parties to the transaction. They are merely agents.
    With the transaction being strictly between the buyer and the publisher, how can the publisher legally forbid the celebrity from donating their eBook-laden iPad minis to the library? Claim that libraries are commercial ventures and thus in violation of the agreed-to iBookstore terms? Where would you find the publishers terms prior to purchase? Not on the iBookstore. So would terms stated in the eBook itself forbidding donation to libraries or gifting a device containing an eBook to a friend or family member be enforceable? I find no such language in my purchased eBooks.

  7. Frank – That’s an interesting potential work-around. But I can think of one major problem with that plan, right off the bat:

    The type of wealthy philanthropists who would be willing and interested to donate big money to a program like this are also the sorts of people who regularly (and necessarily) go out of their way to avoid litigation. Any respectable financial planner or attorney would probably tell them that such a plan could be costly and dangerous, and no truly busy person wants to get tied up in yet another nonsense court case.

    However, with all that said, let me also say that I love the idea. (In theory, that is!) And hey—in most cases, someone’s got to break the rules that need to be broken before they can change, right?

  8. @Frank
    I seriously doubt your workaround would work but it is an interesting idea. Although Apple is acting as an intermediary the publishers still supply the content and once they found out about this I believe they would pressure Apple into disabling the content or accounts associated with the library. I have seen this happen to a few patrons who were not following Amazon’s policy regarding use. You also have to think that the library involved would want 100% assurance that this would work and would go to Apple who would go to the publishers prior to opening a library that is solely reliant on a service or vendor.

  9. @Josh, these are all good questions/concerns. This is why someone needs to test the feasibility of this and other, similar scenarios. We really won’t know until a precedent is set and, even then, we won’t know how enduring that precedent will be. I see the process as something akin to the way legal precedent is established – only after rigorous testing.
    I think that publishers would find it difficult to successfully oppose someone donating a device loaded with legally obtained eBooks to a library. It would be illuminating to see how such a test would play out.

  10. Yeah, blow your budget on e-books, The 8-Track Tapes of the Future. Then the Big Six can hit you with a new format (read: new scam). Man, they must be handing out briefcases full of cash to the politicians, huh? Morons.

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