The Awesome Reason Why This Public Library Has No Books

Peruse San Antonio's Bexar County Digital Library—the nation’s first bookless public library.
(Photo: Courtesy of Bibliotech)
Jan 10, 2014· 2 MIN READ
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

One of the joys of reading is the intoxicating smell of paper books. But a new library in San Antonio is oddly void of it—because it doesn’t have a single printed book on its shelves.

The Bexar County Digital Library is the nation’s first bookless public library. Also known as BiblioTech, it’s home to 10,000 titles, all of which are accessible through its 600 e-readers, 48 computer stations, 10 laptops, and 40 tablets.

Housed in San Antonio’s South Side neighborhood, BiblioTech’s $2.3 million building was, according to the Associated Press, smaller and cheaper to construct than traditional libraries. The county reportedly saved millions of dollars because the building’s design didn’t need to accommodate the weight and space of thousands of printed materials.

Whether replacing books with electronics is a win for the environment is still a matter of great debate, though cutting out paper has some advantages.

The NRDC says the paper industry “may contribute to more global and local environmental problems than any other industry in the world.” According to the Green Press Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to greening the publishing trade, nearly 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from the paper industry. Combined, book and newspaper industries harvest about 125 million trees each year and emit more than 40 million metric tons of CO2 annually.

But calculating the environmental repercussions of e-readers in comparison with books is a tricky proposition at best. “There are numerous studies,” says Green Press program manager Todd Pollack. “And they vary quite a bit as far as what the impacts are.”

The difficulty lies in the fact that studies can have radically different scopes. “Some look at the impacts of manufacturing the e-reader, or the impact of the electricity or power, and others consider a percentage of all the servers that are storing the digital books,” he says.

Some have tried, however, to come up with a definitive measurement of how much our electronic devices are costing the environment in comparison with printed materials. It seems to depend heavily on how many books the e-reader displaces; that is, the number of books read on the e-reader over its lifetime. The New York Times reports that accounting for fossil fuel consumption, water use, and mineral consumption, a single e-reader produces the environmental effects of about 50 books.

But Daniel Goleman, an environmental journalist and author of Ecological Intelligence, claims that number is closer to 100—meaning a user must read 100 books on a single e-reader for the ecological costs to break even.

What they all seem to agree on is that if e-readers are upgraded frequently, say, before those 100 titles are read, the devices’ environmental costs multiply.

But that may not prove to be an issue for BiblioTech’s electronic devices, because they seem to be in heavy use. The library has already signed up 10,000 registered users in its first three months of operation and is on track to surpass 100,000 visitors in its first year.

One question remains: How will BiblioTech’s electronics be disposed of once they’ve outlived their usefulness. E-waste is a growing global issue, with an array of devices finding their way to third-world dump sites. Burned and pulled apart for their valuable internal metals, cast-off tablets and laptops play a significant role in creating environmental toxicity and human health hazards.

For the people of San Antonio’s underserved South Side neighborhood, though, BiblioTech’s free access to electronic devices is more than a novelty—it’s an opportunity for radical social growth.

San Antonio ranks 60th in literacy among the nation’s large cities. South Side is populated by low-income apartments and lacks a single commercial bookstore. Many families lack Internet access. The library’s digital mission is to provide all residents with the chance to enhance their education and literacy.

The technological access provided by BiblioTech has the potential to increase the quality of life for the people who take advantage of it. But if those benefits are going to extend to our natural environment, we have to start paying particular attention to how we source those devices—as well as how we manufacture, use, and dispose of them.