World's first paperless public library in US Bexar County, Texas

Users check out e-readers rather than physical texts

In the world’s first bookless public library in the US state of Texas, the rows-upon-rows of books that fill traditional libraries have been replaced with high-tech gadgets that cater to both adults and children.

Instead of taking home books, registered residents of the south Texas county of Bexar - which has never had a public library or a bookstore - will be able to access over tens of thousands of titles from e-readers for free.

Since September, the county's 1.7 million residents have been able to check out and take home the machines, as well as use their own devices to access the library’s catalogue.

According to its website, the $1.5 million (£920,000) BiblioTech currently has 600 e-readers, 200 pre-loaded enhanced e-readers for children, and 48 computer stations, 10 laptops and 40 tablets to use on-site.

It claims its mission is to give the county’s residents with “necessary tools to thrive as citizens of the 21st century” for the “purposes of enhancing education and literacy” and “promoting reading as recreation”.

Children play on a tablet at the Bexar County Bibliotech

Laura Cole, special project coordinator at BiblioTech, told the Metro: “We wanted to create the best, most cost-effective way of providing library services to a population that is geographically distanced from existing services and a digital library was an obvious choice.

“Geography doesn’t matter if your library is in the cloud,” she said, referring to the ‘cloud’ system where the library’s books are stored online.

Addressing concerns that library users may be put off by technology, she said: “The thing that excites me most is that our staff can dedicate their time to helping visitors.

“They aren’t tied up re-shelving, filing and categorising. They spend most of their time providing one-on-one instruction with visitors, teaching people how to use devices and how to source materials. It’s a more interactive library experience,” she told the newspaper.

Replacement costs have also been factored in to the project. To prevent thefts, devices cannot access the internet once they leave the library.

“For the taxpayer, it’s far more economical to build and maintain an elibrary,” Dr Robert Schwarzwalder, an associate university librarian for the science and engineering department at Stanford University.

“Traditional libraries require much larger load-tolerances in construction due to the weight of materials, so are more costly to build. Book collections also require environmental controls that are costly to maintain,” he added. 

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff who instigated the scheme is an avid reader and a keen collector of first edition texts, but told ABC News: “the world is changing and this is the best, most effective way to bring services to our community.”