/ Technology

Is a library without books still a library?

Some empty bookshelves

As ebooks rise in popularity, what becomes of the humble library? One option is to embrace the new technology and go digital. Would you use a bookless library to find your next ebook?

Have you heard of the bookless library? No, it’s not a joke but a genuine ‘thing’ in America. A library in Texas is opening up to serve the public’s digital literary needs and it’ll be entirely bookless.

Well, technically it’ll be paperless – hosting a large collection of digital books instead. The library will be home to 10,000 ebook titles, 100 ebook readers and a whole host of computers for members of the public to use.

Now despite running the ebook reader test here at Which?, I’m still a fan of the traditional paper book. There’s something about the smell and feel of real texts. And what about the thrill of stalking along the book shelves, examining the spines in neat alphabetical order, waiting for the right one to jump out at you. I’d certainly miss that in a bookless library.

Bringing computers to the masses

But I’m not against digital libraries either. They have their place. This particular example in the US has been designed as a social project – giving those who might not yet be online access to computers and the latest technology. It’ll be a place for people to go to learn how to use and take advantage of the internet (yes, there are still some people out there who aren’t online but would like to be!).

And holding a digital collection will clear the shelves, giving more room for computers. This is a real benefit; computers were rare and hard to come by in my uni library. Many a time I hovered round the library computers waiting for someone to leave, so that I could pounce on their space. By banishing the stacks, bookless libraries are creating room for more modern (and arguably more useful) computer resources.

Finding the best book balance

The notion of hosting a digital collection that you can access from anywhere is also a great idea. It’ll provide people living in rural locations access to thousands of books.  That’s a great benefit for those who might not easily be able to make the trek to the nearest physical library.

But for me I’d still like to see some real books on the shelves too. I think a mixture is the best solution – it may sound like sitting on the fence, but it’s the best way to please both camps.

So perhaps it’s not so much a bookless or paperless library that we’re after. The ideal is perhaps as @marketurner suggests:

Would you find a bookless library useful? Or would you prefer libraries to cater for both digital and traditional books?


With an e-reader on sale for £30 the time is rapidly approaching when economics will demand that school books are supplied electronically. Non-electronic libraries will then become the exception.

When I started working, at sixteen, I used my local library for several years until I was unable to find anything interesting that I had not already read. I then started buying my own books and sadly have not been back to the library since.

I am one of the Luddites who has not submitted to the allure of the electronic readers. I read in the bath and in bed and often wake to find the book on my face. I don’t think the electronic readers would last that type of use. What would happen if I dropped it in the bath? When I finish reading a book, I pass it on to the charity shop so more people can read it and the shop can make some money from my donation. The charity shops are crying out for books and are losing out due to electronic readers.

Simon Wheeler says:
31 May 2013

Here in Moray we have the choice- get in the car, drive to town, find somewhere to park, browse the shelves, drive home etc….or switch on the computer at home, browse the database of books, download onto ebook reader (in my case a Kobo). I do both. The disadvantages of the latter are that at “checkout” you have to set for long you want to “borrow” the book- once you’ve set that time you are stuck with it; you can only have 4 books downloaded at any one time; there is presently no facility to dip into the book to check it out before you borrow. The choice is improving as more books are digitised. And it is so much easier to carry around the Kobo than 4 separate books. I am a convert to ebooks…having been a Luddite/snob for ages about them…

I’m a gadget freak, definitely no Luddite, but I think that a bookless library discriminates against those who are intimidated by technology and have no desire to own and e-book reader.

Paper books are uncomplicated. They need no instructions, the only skill you need to be able to read them is to be literate. I think it would be sad to see paper books disappear from library shelves.

No batteries, instant turn-on, huge choice, lendable to friends without copyright infringement, re-saleable, disposable, cheap, and multifunctional for squashing insects and getting the height right on a wobbly table.

Sorry what was good on e-books?

Now to be fair I probably buy a new book once every two years as the vast bulk of my 1000+ books are second-hand. I do also have a similar number of documents and ex-copyright books on Onyx Boox large format e-reader which this organisation , Which?, consistently refuses to review or mention as an alternative to tiddly screen e-readers flooding the market despite the benefits commensurate with the much bigger screens for those who read very quickly, need maps, or have vision problems.

It is excellent on holidays and for the huge amount of free literature available through Gutenberg and also the free Official war histories available for download. Free modern books are also available.