Libraries without books

Published 8:58 pm Saturday, September 28, 2013

By Kermit Hobbs

I heard a report on the radio recently about a new library being opened in San Antonio, Texas, where there are no books.

The BiblioTech, as it is called, utilizes all the latest technology, including 600 e-readers and 64 computer stations, and patrons can use their library cards to temporarily download books to their own tablets or e-readers. Everything is digital. The library also offers such services as meeting rooms, kids’ story time, and computer classes for its patrons. It’s pretty impressive.

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If I’d really thought about it, I would have seen this coming. I understand many libraries are moving in this direction, even in local colleges. People nowadays are getting their information in other ways, and printed books are not always the best way to accomplish this.

I have to admit that even though I am addicted to my iPad, my iPhone, my laptop and my desktop, something about this new library stirs up the old contrarian in me. I feel a little bit the way I did when I heard kids were using calculators in school, or when I heard that schools were no longer teaching their students to write in cursive.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had sort of a reverence for books. There was something magic about being able to hold in my hands a bundle of knowledge, an exciting adventure, or The Word of God. It was all there for me to absorb, enjoy and learn from.

I have amassed a pretty extensive library of my own that includes all of my old Hardy Boys books, many Civil War regimental histories, Bibles of different translations and American and English literature, including some first editions.

Some books are relatively new; others are centuries old. Some have leather bindings; others have marbled covers. Some are illustrated by great artists like N.C. Wyeth and W.J. Aylward. I even have books about books.

I am a bibliophile — a lover of books. As such, I feel I should come up with some kind of argument against the newfangled bookless library.

But many of the great things I can say about books can also be said about computers and tablets. Indeed, with an iPad in my hand I have access to much more information than I ever could get on a bit of paper, ink and cardboard. I even have the ability to highlight, annotate, bookmark and change the print size and type to suit me.

I think that might be part of my objection. A book is more than just the words it contains. The cover, the font size and typeface of the text, the way the illustrations are printed, even the texture of the paper it’s printed on, are all part of the presentation of the idea the book is conveying.

With the book, I can scan through its pages and spot things I would not have known to search for. The book enables me to get the “big picture” more easily than looking through the porthole of a computer screen.

One of my current jobs is serving as a mediator in General District courts. In that role, I am particularly keen on the importance of clear communication between the parties to a dispute.

Along with listening to the words, I carefully watch the body language of the people involved so I can better understand and help them find a resolution to their problem. It’s an important part of communication.

I would argue the presentation of a book is the “body language,” so to speak, of the ideas the book is presenting. That body language does not exist in a digital copy, and therefore, an element of communication is missing.

I am delighted with technological advances that allow such a free flow of information, and I enjoy using them. But I hope as libraries change and evolve, the beauty, function and utility of the printed book is not lost.

Can’t we just keep the best of both worlds?

Kermit Hobbs Jr. is an accomplished Suffolk historian and businessman. Email him at