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The first bookless library: BiblioTech offers only e-books

By Julianne Pepitone

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — BiblioTech is a new library in Texas, but you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. The library houses no physical books.

Staffers at San Antonio’s BiblioTech say it’s the first “bookless library.” And in addition to its catalog of 10,000 e-books, this techy library also provides a digital lifeline to a low-income neighborhood that sorely needs it.

BiblioTech opened its doors Sept. 14 on the south side of San Antonio, a mostly Hispanic neighborhood where 40% of households don’t have a computer and half lack broadband Internet service.

Although the library houses no printed books — and members can even skip the visit by checking out its e-books online — BiblioTech’s staff says the library’s physical presence is still key to its success.

“We’re finding that you really have to get your head around a paradigm shift,” said Laura Cole, BiblioTech’s special projects coordinator. “Our digital library is stored in the cloud, so you don’t have to come in to get a book. But we’re a traditional library in that the building itself is an important community space.”

That 4,800-square-foot space looks more like an Apple Store or a Google breakroom than a library. It’s decked out with funky orange walls, a colorful play area for children complete with plush seats and glowing screens, plus loads of devices available for in-library use: 45 Apple iPads, 40 laptops and 48 desktop computers.

Members checking out one of the 10,000 e-books — provided through 3M’s Cloud Library service — can borrow one of 600 stripped-down e-readers or 200 “enhanced” readers for children. Audiobooks and educational software are also available.

BiblioTech’s efforts have attracted 7,000 members so far, and staffers relish sharing anecdotes about the people who walk through their doors.

Cole relayed a story about a young family’s recent visit, during which the twentysomething father revealed that the regular e-readers were of no use to him; he couldn’t read.

“One of our staff offered him a children’s reader, which is enhanced with activities that help learn to read,” Cole said. “He started shaking, and his wife couldn’t stop crying. It was a really profound experience for him. And this is why we worked to start something like BiblioTech.”

The genesis of the idea came from Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, a self-described book fiend who felt libraries aren’t evolving with technology. Wolff gathered about a half-dozen county employees, including Cole, to brainstorm ideas for a library that helped an underserved neighborhood in a truly modern way. Last October, the group began researching to find other libraries that had gone completely digital — but they couldn’t find any.

“Not all libraries are going to be like us, and we understand that,” Wolff said. “But we sure do hope it’s going to drive them to do more to evolve. The world is changing, and libraries can’t stay the same. Not if they want to stay relevant.”

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