Sean Bearly on the patio of Newport Beach Library tests the wireless signal… (Christine Cotter / Los Angeles…)
In a sign of the times, Newport Beach is considering closing the city's original library and replacing it with a community center that would offer all the same features — except for the books.
Instead of a reference librarian, patrons would be greeted by a kiosk equipped with video-calling software that would allow them to speak with employees elsewhere. And books — when ordered — would be dropped off at a locker for pickup.
The proposed bookless library is a reflection of how both the economy and a shift in visitors' habits are forcing city libraries to redefine their services.
In San Antonio, the University of Texas unveiled an engineering and technology library in September with no paper annals, but access to 425,000 e-books and 18,000 e-journal subscriptions. In place of stacks are "group study niches."
At Stanford University, the new Engineering Library opened in August with about a quarter of the 80,000 books it had before.
In Newport Beach, which has four city libraries, officials analyzed how patrons use them. Most visit the branches to study, to plug their laptops into work spaces or to use computers with Internet connections.
Few, however, actually pulled books from the shelves.
So Newport Beach is weighing a Netflix-like system in which readers could order books and then pick them up from lockers at an "electronic library," a 2,200-square-foot room with a central fireplace and a kiosk where patrons could select titles online.
"A lot of people still want to touch a book, hold a book, smell it," said Cynthia Cowell, library services director for the Newport Beach Public Library. "The sensory experience is still very important to many of us."
The question is whether people are ready for bookless branches.
"That caused me the most angst," said City Manager Dave Kiff, who helped develop the plan. "People identify [book] stacks with the library."
Kiff proposed in an email: "Shouldn't the modern library reflect what people are doing now, instead of reflecting what we might have done 20 or 30 years ago?"
On a recent afternoon at the Balboa branch library, the first in Newport Beach when it opened in 1952, most of the patrons worked on desktop computers or browsed the DVD collection. One person slipped into the stacks — but only to make a cellphone call in private.
The modest one-story building houses 35,000 items, including books, DVDs and other materials. The branch also holds the city's nautical collection — fitting for its location on the Balboa Peninsula, which once teemed with shipyards.
One risk of going bookless would be in losing such tailored neighborhood branch collections, said Christine Borgman, professor of information studies at UCLA.
"They can serve the demographics of the individual communities," she said.
This transition toward an all-electronic library is being nudged along by budget cuts. Newport Beach is anticipating Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed fiscal 2011-12 budget, which would eliminate $15 million in state funds for library and literacy-related programs.
Past attempts to change the traditional library model have not always worked out.
In 2008, Long Beach considered turning its main library into a depot of sorts that would fill book orders for neighborhood branch libraries. But residents rallied to save the stacks and the proposal was shelved.
In the late 1970s, Baltimore County opened "mini" libraries in shopping centers, staffed by volunteers, when it couldn't afford to open branches in some neighborhoods.
Still, communities need to be open to change, said Nancy Acone, a board member of the Newport Beach support group Friends of the Library.
"You don't want to be like the railroads and go out of business."