When I worked at Amazon.com in the mid-1990s, no one originally knew quite what to make of us. I worked there pre-IPO, and for just a few months, as the place was a chaotic mess I had to run away from for my sanity. I thought it was about to collapse when I quit, leaving my stock options behind. Probably a good indication one shouldn’t turn to me for career, business, or stock-market advice.

We received such fascinating email, though. Email was only available to perhaps tens of millions of people worldwide by early 1997. One message in particular sticks with me for its opening line; I wish I had kept a copy. It was from Japan, and it was likely the writer’s native tongue fed into AltaVista’s Babelfish, an early form of statistics-based machine translation. It read:

Today, I live in the book.

We didn’t know precisely what that meant, and the rest of the email was more straightforward, but it became a kind of catchphrase briefly among my colleagues. “Today, I live in the book,” we said, as we did.

Eternal sunshine of the spotless shelves

I was disturbed, as one who lives in the book, to read about Bexar County’s BiblioTech, a library that cost $2.3 million to build and has no physical books. The library is the first without real volumes in the country, says the American Library Association in this AP article about the project.

The head librarian doesn’t like real books much. They’re so…physical:

Head librarian Ashley Elkholf came from a traditional Wisconsin high school library and recalled the scourges of her old job: mishelved items hopelessly lost in the stacks, pages thoughtlessly ripped out of books and items that went unreturned by patrons who were unfazed by measly fines and lax enforcement.

It’s terrible to think that the entire utility of a physical library is undermined by its actual physical nature and those pesky patrons. And:

“If you have bookshelves, you have to structure the building so it can hold all of that weight,” Elkholf said. “Books are heavy, if you’ve ever had one fall on your foot.”

This reads like a parody, and yet it is not.

Instead, readers use computers (48 of them) or iPads (40) in the library or check out one of 800 ereaders (200 of them models meant for kids), or, not noted in the article, read borrowed ebooks on their own ereaders or mobile devices. It’s a wonderful vision of the future except:

Finding an open iMac among the four dozen at BiblioTech is often difficult after the nearby high school lets out, and about half of the facility’s e-readers are checked out at any given time, each loaded with up to five books.

But the library is much easier to build because it doesn’t hold actual volumes.

The space is also more economical than traditional libraries despite the technology: BiblioTech purchases its 10,000-title digital collection for the same price as physical copies, but the county saved millions on architecture because the building’s design didn’t need to accommodate printed books.

So much about this seems misguided, directed by people in love with technology who have decided to throw themselves and their patrons off the cliff by disregarding how people interact with media (whether physical or electronic), and the current and future limitations of this sort of investment.

The library of the future has more computers than people in this artist’s conception. This is not an Apple Store, even though librarians wear retail-style uniforms.

Every book, its own reader

When you have a library full of printed books, every book is a self-contained apparatus: every printed book contains the hardware and data necessary to allow human wetware and our operating system to interact with it. One needs no intermediary for the contents of the book. Each book stands alone.

Digital copies of works would seem to flip this around—in an ideal case. An infinite number of books could be read on a single device, a Turing machine for the innards of books instead of for computing. One need only have one piece of hardware and display any title on it.

But licensing and copyright prevents that reality. As an author, I have mixed feelings about restrictions. To make a living, I need compensation for my words. Even with direct sales, in which I bypass the traditional monolithic publishing infrastructure (which is crumbling in any case), the number of copies of a work I can sell is mediated by the ease by which someone can obtain a copy at no cost, whether legally or otherwise.

If every library had every book available for loan at no cost and no limit on simultaneous reading for its patrons, ostensibly the sale of electronic editions would shrink to a point at which it was no longer possible for most authors who make some or an entire living today to continue to do so. (A relatively small number of authors achieve sales to support a living outside of specialized markets and good-selling fiction, so perhaps there is an argument to be made here about whether writing books is a viable profession for 99.9% of us at all, and we should be seeking new models as the old collapse.)

We can see cases in which the potential of unlimited digital copies occurs: with public-domain books, even though they represent an extremely tiny part of the whole and generally encompass in America only works published before 1923. Everything at Project Gutenberg or that is in the public-domain category at Google Books may be reproduced and read without any restrictions or payments. (Copyright terms vary in other countries, especially for older works.)

Because of massive giveaways by Congress and various presidential administrations to corporate entities that benefit the most from extended terms of copyright, only a tiny number of works have entered the public domain. It will likely be decades, unless the terms are lengthened further, until substantial numbers of works will be available.

Thus lending libraries have a quandary. Purchasing physical books seems wasteful as more and more readers have digital readers. Yet only a small subset of all books ever published and a still relatively small portion of all books currently published are readily available in digital form. Further, many patrons of public libraries are economically disadvantaged or older, and thus less likely to possess their own standalone ereaders, mobile devices with appropriate capabilities, or even computers. Thus physical copies have the greatest accessibility to the most library users. (This is changing rapidly. The digital divide of race and age has broken down, especially with mobile devices and Kindle-style ereaders.)

Licensing models for electronic books currently rely on a scarcity model and restricted access. In order to keep demand high for direct sales to individuals, libraries must acquire licenses that allow ebook loans that are limited in terms of simultaneous copies, exactly as if they had purchased physical volumes.

This makes sense from the publisher’s standpoint. If 5,000 library patrons wish to read Fifty Shades of Grey at once—and however much a serious reader may abhor the title, libraries are there to serve all readers—allowing a library to loan 5,000 copies simultaneously cannot benefit the publisher unless it recoups the opportunity cost of lost sales among those readers. A library couldn’t possibly afford to pay the necessary cost to make that up, so it must pursue the optimum balance of paper books and ebook licenses to meet reader demand.

A publisher is likely delighted when there are 4,500 people who have holds on a book, because the demand will drive some percentage to make the purchase, rather than wait months or even years to read. It also reinforces the sense of a book’s popularity among potential buyers.

Due date slip from Crossett Library.

Libraries have a high motivation to pay for ebook licenses for the most popular works because the physical copies are under intense usage, and must be moved around in library trucks among branches and handled by librarians and clerks to move them on and off hold shelves. An ebook requires a few clicks, never degrades, nor is it “lost.”

Except when it doesn’t. HarperCollins put a limitation on its ebook lending for libraries: they may loan a book a total of 26 times within a license, and then it expires. Other publishers have circled around this notion, but not yet grabbed at it.

It’s very appealing to them, almost skeuomorphic in the business model, as it lets them take a model for print publishing that is falling apart, and use copyright, licensing, scarcity, control, distribution, and cartel power to force an analog model into a digital world.

But physical books don’t typically fall apart after 26 loans. HarperCollins’ ebooks are disintegrated in a form of digital book burning, an extreme analogy only because they are copies of a perfect original. Nonetheless, such a license takes books a library has purchased at ostensibly full price and takes them away forever.

Let a million books bloom

Libraries are the ultimate long-tail systems. They do not exist, as a retail bookstore does, to provide mostly best-selling works to patrons. Rather, they accumulate as much of the sum total of human knowledge as they can afford that is most relevant to the community served. This means having a lot of books that may not be read frequently, but which are critical resources to have available when they are needed.

I spent days happily in the 27 floors of stacks of my college library for a class in college called “Jews and Revolution” in which I looked through and checked out dozens of books that hadn’t been touched since the 1920s and 1930s, judging by the due-date slips. My 1980s self was delighted to discover these gems, almost all of which were sent off to the conservation lab when I returned them. My 2010s self hopes that they are being or have been digitized.

Bexar County built its no-books library as the sole branch of a county system. While there are 1.8 million people in the county, which is one of the fastest-growing in America, most (about 1.3 million) are in the county seat of San Antonio, which has its own library system. Bexar County is attempting to direct limited resources in the most targeted way to serve a population outside the urban boundary. (Anyone in Bexar County can get a San Antonio Library card, however, which may have driven the specific planning for this county-only branch; likewise, any San Antonio resident can get a Bexar County card for free.)

One could argue that by forcing patrons, including students, to only interact through electronic means, they are providing a form of education for young and old about the future of the information economy, and potentially improving the county population’s ability to advance itself as a workforce.

But that’s not how they’re marketing it. This is a better way to have access to books for reading and studying, the library says. It’s the future. And it’s so very wrong.

Let’s return to the licensing model. This library doesn’t actually own any books. While the AP article paraphrases the library saying that it “purchased” a 10,000-title library, this is incorrect. The deal is a license, not ownership, with 3M for a subset of its Cloud Collection, the whole corpus of which encompasses only 200,000 titles from 300 publishers. That’s a tiny number out of several million books that are in print and tens of millions of unique titles ever published.

In the United States, a library purchases a print book and owns it forever and pays no additional fee. This isn’t true in some countries, in which a public lending right compensates copyright holders for these loans. These often cover only works of fiction, but authors are paid directly; it’s not a royalty pool. The fees are proportional to library budget and other factors in most places. Some would like that to be the case here, to buoy author income.

But even where such a right exists, the ownership of the physical item vests in the library forever. With ebooks, that’s not the case. Because digital-rights management (DRM) and format choices lock books to specific devices and ecosystems, a library is purchasing a long-term relationship with the supplier, which includes relying on the supplier honoring terms and persisting with the necessary software support indefinitely. We all know technology firms never cancel software projects, shut down divisions, or go out of business.

Clifford Stoll wrote a wonderful and under-regarded book years ago called High Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don’t Belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian. Stoll, best known for his book Cuckoo’s Nest, in which he explains how he uncovered early networked computer crackers, laid out a case for the lack of evidence that spending money to bring computers into classrooms had any appreciable effect on objective outcomes of any kind. (Two years ago, I wrote my own screed following Apple’s announcement of Apple’s textbook plan for multimedia textbooks locked in to its ecosystem; its plan has dropped like a stone.)

Stoll noted, in part, that it was easier to get voters to pay for computers, which were seen as an educational panacea, than for smaller classroom sizes, additional resources, and other proven means to improve education for all. Computers seem like an obvious quick fix. Everyone is happy. In the years since his book came out, laptops-for-all and tablets-for-all programs have proliferated (and some fizzled) without any improvement in the rigor of whether they’re a good investment in education.

(We’ve also seen wave after wave of “electronic textbook” replacements and experiments, all of which have fizzled because the ebook versions aren’t as good, complete, or useful, and lack the physical properties of multi-page simultaneous access, physical placeholding, and the like. Textbook rentals made more of an impact than electronic textbooks.)

The same seems true here. Build a high-tech library with none of those pesky “real” books to deal with, and residents are better served at lower cost and greater access.

Except for the small numbers of computers and tablets in the library. And the five-book per patron checkout limit. And the 10,000-title library. And the patrons’ likely lower income (outside of some wealthy San Antonio suburbs) meaning the county’s residents are less likely to own devices. And that a family of five could each be reading a paper book, or a stack of them, or swapping them around, but unlikely to each have a digital reader that would let them separately each read a book at once. And so on.

It’s another case of snake oil, but has a sweet taste and smell, because there is real utility underlying it which hides the limitations.

Death of the blank

The notion that ebooks are the sole path forward into the future, and that printed books are dead ignores nearly all the evidence against it, searching for a narrative that isn’t there. What’s happened since the birth of widespread electronic reading in the mid-1990s via Web pages, PDFs, and ebooks, is that more different books are published in physical and electronic form than ever before, as well as more units of books being created or digitally copied and sold to readers.

But reporters like a “killer app” or “death of” narrative better, and I’m certainly not exempt. I wrote a piece about the “death of folders” years ago for the Economist, when it seemed that Apple and Microsoft had finally developed robust enough database systems underlying filesystems that users might no longer need to arrange items tediously. Boy, was I wrong. (Another more accurately predicted the slow, oncoming death of dial-up modems.)

It’s tempting to tell stories that way, because the notions of destruction and creation are fundamental in our myths, and we know we’ll bring readers in with such headlines.

In the case of books, more different books are being written, published, and purchased than ever before—in print! Even while ebook sales are through the roof. It doesn’t fit the narrative, however. Many new books come out in very small print editions or single copies; many titles are electronic only or sell more copies in electronic versions. This is all true.

In America alone, trade books (books sold through bookstores, excluding textbooks and other specialized markets) represented $15 billion in sales in 2012, comprising somewhere around 2 billion individual books, according to collations from various reports from the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group. (Half a billion of those were sold through retail outlets that report directly to BookScan, an industry information gatherer: Amazon, Walmart, and other giant resellers participate, as well as smaller booksellers.)

That was a 7.4% gain over 2011, although a hunk of it was due to Fifty Shades and Hunger Games titles. Early 2013 numbers showed a 6% drop from 2012. About a fifth of the 2012 total or $3 billion was ebooks, which sold nearly half a billion copies. Ebook sales increases were tapering off, too, after huge year-over-year jumps.

More unique books are published each year, too, because of the ease of self-publishing both through electronic distribution and print-on-demand (POD), where books are printed, literally, on demand as they are needed to ship to customers, and a single copy can look nearly as good as a mass-produced item.

Bowker’s Books In Print, to which most publishers large and small who distribute into sales channels provide information, says 391,000 new self-published titles were produced in 2012, 59% more than 2011 and 422% above 2007. That may undercount 100,000s of books published in specialty markets and in very small quantities who don’t give their reports to Books In Print, which charges for the privilege of receiving them. About 100,000 or so books a year come from traditional publishers.

Just among fiction writers, The Millions estimates at least 250,000 Americans are actively working on a novel right now. It may be as high as a million.

The life of books

More people are reading more different things across more different media than ever before. People are reading more in general because mobile devices bring more short articles, blog posts, marketing emails, books, periodicals, and all the other folderol into people’s hands, even as they make other entertainment opportunities available, too.

Before the advent of the Web, a library was the primary and only method for most people to get a steady stream of new things to read, whether classic books or new issues of periodical. The library tried to mediate scarcity by using taxes collected from all to populate reading material for both rich and poor. The poor and middle-class are always disproportionate users of libraries.

The Web and Internet at large brought free reading at some extent to now billions of people. The perfect accuracy of Wikipedia aside, humanity has never had such widespread access to the basic facts it presents without a bar of cost or of library hours and budgets. While paywalls may be rising everywhere for subscription publications, like the New York Times and far beyond, there will always be piles of fresh news to read at no cost.

This is all to the good. Society flourishes with the greatest access to ideas, whether trivially humorous or politically explosive. Libraries are a tool to bring the greatest variety of instantiations of ideas to the greatest number of people.

The BiblioTech’s name is a pun, of course, borrowed from the word in many Romance languages for library, which derives from the Latin, bibliothēca. There’s a lot of irony in defining a thing in modern terms by a word that almost proves the opposite point. The BiblioTech, in trying to capture the future, has lost the library in its name.

Glenn Fleishman is the editor and publisher of The Magazine, and a frequent contributor to the Economist. He hosts the podcast, The New Disruptors. He lives in Seattle in a house that has two walls of books and two stacks of them by his bedside, but also two iPads, two iPod touches, three iPhones, three Kindles, and three laptops. (And three human beings who he loves very much.)

This article was produced by The Magazine. It costs $1.99 per month for two issues or $19.99 per year for 26, and subscriptions include free access to over 150 past articles — our full archive. We commission original reported articles and essays, and run five in each issue every two weeks. You can get a free, seven-day trial via our iOS app or our Web site to try us out.

Banner photo by Glyn Lowe.

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