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COMMERCE STREET: BiblioTech narrows the gap

The "library of the future" celebrates its sixth birthday this year.
Credit: KENS 5

SAN ANTONIO — Bexar County designed BiblioTech to narrow gaps in access to information, education and entertainment, making resources accessible to people who weren't close to branch libraries. But to do that, the county also needed to address the digital divide and increase digital literacy. KENS 5 Eyewitness News talks with Director Laura Cole about the library's journey so far, and what's to come.

We have contributed to the San Antonio Public Library since 1930-something, and we were finding that the population of Bexar County, the people that we pay for, anyone who’s not [within city limits], in the unincorporated areas-that’s who we pay for, that’s why we pay that annual contribution- more and more of them are moving farther and farther away from branch libraries. They’re moving farther out into the county, and it was becoming more and more difficult for them to access and use branch libraries and so, what’s the solution for that?

And so the Judge had an idea, and he was just fascinated by this idea of a library that’s not defined by space. A library that’s in the cloud, anybody can use it at any time of day, that’s fabulous. He’d just finished the Steve Jobs book, the biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, and so he was really fascinated by how quickly technology has progressed, even in the last five, ten years. So he just said, okay, let’s see if we can do some figuring on this and do some investigation and tell me about all the digital libraries there are in the world.

And I started to call around and I started to do research and week after week, this core group of folks, county people, would get together and have this roundtable discussion and say, I don’t see one. I don’t think there’s one that exists. And it’s hard to say that because just because you can’t find it doesn’t mean it isn’t there, and so that whole- absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, kind of thing. But week after week we would say- and I called various libraries throughout the country- contacted via email, other libraries throughout the world and said, how are you managing your digital content? How are you doing this, how are you doing that- and nobody was doing it in a complete, comprehensive way.

People would have… little pieces, and I finally came back and I said, we could do this but we’d have to kind of create our own way of doing it. And David Smith had originally said, the county manager had originally said, this’ll probably be the easiest county project we’ve ever done. You just find me the model, and then we’ll just mimic that… it didn’t exist.

Much to be said for the courage of Judge Wolff and the leadership of Judge Wolff, he said okay, then we’ll just be the first. And okay. So we said that, and we put together sort of a model that we thought was reasonable, we’re going to have to provide education, on how to use a digital library, as well as technology to access it. We’d have to provide the technology to access it for those people that can’t afford it.

A public library is supposed to be for everyone. If it’s only for the elite, for the affluent, it’s not a public library. So we had to provide a library for people who didn’t have those means. And the other thing to is, where are you going to do that? A library is fine in the cloud, but again if people don’t have the technology to access it – if they don’t have a device- what kind of solution are you going to provide for that?

And there was some space, in a county owned building, down in, on Pleasanton Road. It was vacant and 4800 square feet and that was plenty of room to provide technology, to be able to circulate inexpensive reading devices for people, and that serves as well- a community learning hub, a reading space, libraries are more than repositories, they’re places people need to gather, and we can do all those things but we don’t need the extra storage space.

So we just went ahead and did it, and it was shocking. Again, we were sort of dancing around the whole issue of, are we the first? Almost afraid to say that. But as soon as the press release went out saying we were going to do that, we were going to use that space- the public information officer from the county started to get hits from all over the world. It was blowing up, it was scary, she was calling me every five minutes saying we’ve got more coverage added to this. It went out on Express News and then onto the wire and before you know it my heart is beating fast and I’m sweating bullets.

And then you’re like, can we do this?

Exactly! And the pressure was on. And it couldn’t just be okay. I had built a budget for the county, with the county in mind, which is always a satisficing budget. We have to be good stewards of taxpayers’ money, so okay, we can do it for this amount of money and I suddenly realized- we can do it for this amount of money. But we can’t do it well.

And we’ve got the world watching this now, to make sure it’s going to succeed, or see how it’s going to do so I went back to David Smith and said, I think we’re going to need more money. And that’s when Tracy Wolff got involved. She started raising money and raised a good chunk of money for us. And I’m always thankful to Tracy for her tremendous efforts in that regard. We also got some enthusiasm from some local people who said- this is an exciting idea and indeed it was. We opened on September 14 of 2013, and it’s going to be six years, and the first few years were pretty rough, in terms of our acceptance with the library community.

People in other parts of the world were so incredibly enthused and really really thrilled- the library profession in the United States was not all that excited about. It’s kind of a threatening model, it’s disruptive, but now, now, six years later- we’re seeing a much different- I’m getting much different reception, I’m not the most reviled person in the room when I walk into a room of librarians. It’s a very different thing now. But it’s six years later- think about how much has changed in six years. And I always say, it’s very difficult for me to imagine, that this trend is gonna go backwards. People are not going to say, I don’t want to receive information this way anymore, I don’t want to read the newspaper online, I don’t want to- that’s just not going to happen. So it’s very exciting. We’ve had some tremendous reception from the public as a whole and now from other cities. We have other cities looking at doing this as well. So it’s pretty exciting.

By the way, do you say BiblioTech or The BiblioTech?

I like to say BiblioTech because the BiblioTech makes it sound like the Titanic or the Lusitania or something like that and it’s not that so you say “I’m going to BiblioTech.”

If I’m not familiar with it- is it just a room full of tablets that use the Internet for eBooks?

It’s a little bit different. Our spaces are each unique because of their particular locations. For example the one on Pleasanton Road is 4800 square feet, we’ve got a community room that’s available for use, we have a children’s area. But when you walk in it’s really a stark departure from any other library you’ve ever been in. People are a little confounded by it honestly. We always have someone at the door to greet them and give them an orientation. Because what you’ll do is you’ll walk into our main reading room, you’ll see a circulation desk, but then you’ll just see 48 beautiful gleaming imac computers. That’s it, that’s the library. Behind the circulation desk they’ll check out an ipad for you if you don’t have one, we have a certain number of hotspots that are available so that you can have internet access at homes as well. We have all those things you’d find in a library but without the paper books. But it does look a little bit different.

BiblioTech West, that’s a different space. It’s a bit smaller, it’s in public housing. We have space in a public housing development that speaks and fits in with our mission perfectly, which is bringing library access to people. So if you can plunk it into their living room that’s a big deal. How often can you do that? So that’s a much smaller space. We don’t have the benefit of a community room at that space- however, what that means is, we do have opportunities to partner with other local areas that do have open spaces. So it’s a nice community synergy around that space. It’s been nice. We have a children’s room there and a study room there. We can make BiblioTech fit, any space, because we don’t need books.

Now, VIA, the public transportation system, has wifi on all their buses, so we’ve partnered with VIA to bring the library to the bus. So it’s a little bit different. You think of the traditional book mobile where it travels to you- but in this way BiblioTech is just the library that becomes part of your day- it travels with you, not to you. It kind of reframes the way we think of how library interacts with people.

Is it still fair to call BiblioTech a library?

It is absolutely a public library. Everything you could probably find at a public library. It’s just different. Because we still think about public libraries as being places that hold and store things; that’s…that’s the same concept, it’s just not a building. So yes, we have movies, we have music, we have databases, research databases, books, graphic novels, language learning, software learning- anything you’d find in a library is available in digital format.

Talk to me about the equity aspect of BiblioTech.

That’s really probably the biggest thing. We’re trying to bridge the digital divide that still exists in 2019 in San Antonio. So BiblioTech is built on 3 pillars- access, resources and education. They’re all interdependent; you can’t have one without the other. You can’t have a library, first of all, without resources. You can’t have a digital library if people don’t know how to use it. So our staff is trained as teachers. They’ll teach them how to use the library on their device, on our device, which is circulated to them, the way you’d circulate a book- any kind of computer training you might be interested in, we can provide that for you. Education is important, and access. If you don’t have the means to access our resources, it doesn’t matter how great they are.

If you don’t have internet at home, we can help you with that, too. Provide, circulate a hotspot that will go home with you- if you don’t return it in two weeks we’re turning it off- but your family can have access to search for jobs, do homework- and it’s interesting to me because we did a heat map, of where our hotspots are being used, but we look at the zip codes, and it’s all over the county. I was shocked because most of the people who use our branches are within 3-4 miles of that area. You’re not going to drive halfway across the county but people who check out the hotspots, there’s a dearth of access across the county.

They’re not doing that if they have anything available to them. They’re doing it because they need it.

How do you expect the role of BiblioTech to develop?

To be a leader for the advancement of digital literacy in Bexar County, and that means all kinds of things. It means understanding how digital information works. It also means reading through digital technology and I really want us to be advancing both of those things all the time. I went back after I was put in charge of BiblioTech and got my degree in librarianship, I’ve always been a reader, and I want to stress over and over again how important reading is for people because readers are lifelong learners and they’re curious and they’re always driven and one of the components of our mission is to promote reading as recreation. To make it fun. We’ve been able to appeal to kids in a lot of ways because it’s cool to have a device.

In six years, our demographic is changing so much. The children that were not born yet are now in kindergarten so they’re digital natives, they’re growing up with technology, that’s how they’re learning, that’s their worldview. But we’re losing people who had less familiarity with technology. We’re going to see that shape change of people who are digitally literate and who are not.

I remember growing up, librarians teaching us Dewey Decimal System and Primary Sources and Secondary Sources, and here’s how you understand this information that’s written. Could there eventually be a place for BiblioTech librarians saying- this is how you find information you trust?

100%. Absolutely. And I think that’s the role more and more librarians are finding they’re going to fill. Those things we used to rely on, we don’t need as much anymore- I think at least in the public library setting, we’re going in for different things. What they need to know is- is this reliable information? Is this something I can trust? That’s where librarians are really going to be playing their role. Not so much as, let me help you with your search, because people have those skills and the kind of search they’re doing doesn’t need a whole lot of, doesn’t need the same kind of skill it once did. However, librarians are going to be the discerners- the navigators.

It’s a county entity- but are you integrating with schools?

We’ve worked with 14 school districts and are looking to launch a program soon to be a stronger partnership with some of those districts so we’re always interested in how we can flesh out those relationships a little more and there’s so many opportunities for that.

Anything else you’re excited about?

I want people to use some of our, I want people to go in and explore online, our website. When you invert the way you think about the library and talk about it, making sure the inside gets outside, there are so many possibilities. I’m looking to work with some of our partners on how to get in different areas. I’ve got this vision of BiblioTech on screens at all of the gyms in San Antonio. Like on all the treadmills and stuff and machines- that’s my next endeavor. It sounds funny but I’m talking to people about how we might make that happen. I’m looking to see how we might have it serve a solid purpose in the Bexar County Jail. I can’t think of a place, community or population we can’t serve with BiblioTech because we don’t have to haul around 40,000 books.

And it’s not the same as Google. There you have competing interests, and it is a company.

We are a public information, free, completely free, without any financial interest or motivation.

Anything else important to understanding BiblioTech that I missed?

I want people to understand that it is free. It is free to all residents of Bexar County, it’s very easy to use. We are very intentional about making it as easy as possible and available wherever you are. I want a sign that says, you are here- so is BiblioTech.

You don’t have to have a physical card, you can go online and get a registration number. If you don’t need to use a device, if you don’t want a card with a bar code you don’t need it, you can download from home and start right away.

When BiblioTech rolled out, there were a lot of questions about how, exactly, this would work- and they’ve worked through a lot of different chapters to become what they are now. But they’re still in the middle of the story… and now, Bexar County is becoming a model for other cities- around the state and nation.

What’s exciting about being the first is it doesn’t really matter how many mistakes you make because there’s nobody on the other side saying you did that wrong? We’ve seen that…we’ve had a number of course corrections like that and that’s okay, it’s going to happen.

We do have BiblioTech Laredo- the Laredo Housing Authority saw what we were doing here and we helped them set up BiblioTech Laredo. They’re expanding now to 2 additional developments, so we’re just going to put through an MOU for that. Brownsville Housing Authority in Brownsville is interested, we’ve also served as the model for Rutherford County Library System in Murfreesbro Tennessee, so we helped them a little bit with that so we’re sort of sister libraries- it’s exciting we’re gaining traction now.


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