BiblioTech: Bexar County Digital Library

 How a Texas county created the nation’s first fully digital public library

 

In September 2013, the nation’s first completely bookless public library opened in Bexar County. Named BiblioTech after the Spanish word for library (“biblioteca”), the modern facility is located on the county’s south side and serves its 1.7 million residents.

The 4,800 square-foot library space does not contain a single hardcover or paperback book. Instead, it boasts 26,210 eBook titles (with a plan in place to increase that number by 10,000 every year for the next five years), 600 e-readers, 200 child-enhanced e-readers, 48 computer stations, 45 iPads, 10 laptops, 4 interactive surface tables, 2 study rooms, and a small café.



Bexar County financed and built its contemporary version of the public library in less than 15 months. Envisioned by Bexar County Judge Nelson W. Wolff, supported by the county’s commissioners court and developed by county staff, the story behind BiblioTech focuses on how county leaders used today’s technology to build tomorrow’s public library.  

The city’s public library system is funded via a collaborative effort by the city of San Antonio, the San Antonio Public Library Foundation and the county, along with donations from charitable foundations, corporations and individuals. In 2013 and 2014, the county contributed $3.8 million each year toward the library system. 

In 2013, the city requested the county increase its annual funding to $6.5 million, but county leaders felt that spending more taxpayer money on the library wasn’t the right decision to make. Concerned about escalating costs, tensions rose between the two entities. 

A solution to the problem came to Judge Wolff after he read Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of Steve Jobs. Inspired by Jobs’ commitment to design and complete immersion in his projects, Wolff set about enhancing the county’s library system to better meet the unique needs of community members.

“Steve Jobs was not a technician; he was more of an artist. Jobs made sure all his equipment — even the back end of it — was designed just right. That in itself was a real key part of what I learned by reading his book,” Wolff said.

The year before, in 2012, a community survey had indicated that 18 percent of responding San Antonio households did not have a computer in the home and 45 percent did not have access to the Internet through a broadband connection. Wolff wanted to create a digital lifeline for those residents needing access to the wealth of information, goods and services available via the Internet.

The Beginning of BiblioTech



In recent years, more and more American readers have begun swapping out their bookshelves for e-book readers. According to figures released in January 2014 from the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project Omnibus Survey, approximately 50 percent of Americans now own a dedicated handheld device such as a Kindle, iPad or tablet that they use for reading. About 28 percent of American adults read an e-book in 2013, up from 23 percent in 2012, while 14 percent of Americans had listened to an audiobook. About 4 percent of American readers are shunning paper books entirely. In 2011, Amazon reported that it was selling 105 e-books for every 100 printed books. According to a February 2014 Forbes article, e-books now make up about 30 percent of all book sales. 

Yet despite these figures, surveys still show that Americans believe libraries continue to remain critical. More than three-quarters of Americans participating in a Pew Research Center poll said that borrowing books, reference librarian services, and free access to computers and the internet were all “very important” to them. 

Previous attempts to develop fully digital public libraries in 2002 in Arizona and in California in 2011 ultimately failed when patrons demanded to keep physical books. But BiblioTech didn’t replace the public library; instead, it became the county’s digital alternative to the city’s traditional public library. Its foremost mission is to assist county residents who have the most challenges accessing digital information. 

“For the library model to remain relevant, it is going to have to change from a ‘bricks and mortar’ model to ‘bricks and clicks,’” wrote BiblioTech Administrator Laura Cole in an internal document about the project. “Previous attempts at digital libraries have had one thing in common. The model was implemented by library systems that already had a history and legacy of paper. In no instance has a library system been built from the ground up in which the library system itself was designed for, not adapted to, the digital age.”

Wolff envisioned a building with brightly colored “reading rooms” resembling an Apple Store with several computer stations and a circulation desk, a place where patrons would be able to check out eReaders and download eBooks from a “cloud library.” The state-of-the-art digital facility would offer their library services via the Internet and include rooms for community activities and study groups. 

Wolff proposed that BiblioTech be located in an existing county building located near county offices on the south side of San Antonio in a mostly Hispanic, underserved and economically disadvantaged area of the county. The county estimated that as many as 75 percent of households in the southside neighborhood do not have a broadband Internet connection.  The building was already compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and on major bus routes. The location helps the library meet its goal of providing the county residents least likely to have their own Internet connection with access to the Web and technology, while residents living elsewhere in the county not wanting to travel to the library can still access BiblioTech’s services via the Internet access. 



But even with the apparent community need, readership trends and the right location, Wolff still needed to gain support for his vision. To get the ball rolling, he first reached out to Krisellen Maloney, the dean of Libraries at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). Maloney oversees all the libraries on the UTSA campuses; more than 75 percent of the university’s library budget in 2013 went toward technology. One of its libraries, the Applied Engineering and Technology (AET) Library, became the nation’s first bookless academic library on a university campus when it opened in 2010.

The AET Library served as a model for Judge Wolff, who was impressed with Dean Maloney’s emphasis on the connection between technology and providing library services. 

Maloney became an integral part of BiblioTech’s implementation. She participated in the interviewing process for the librarian and branch manager positions, helped choose the eBook provider and offered a wealth of information and expertise on a variety of subjects. She now chairs BiblioTech’s Advisory Board. 

After conferring with Maloney, Wolff pitched the concept to Bexar County’s top management — including the county manager. Wolff said having a county manager who oversees all the different county departments collectively helped speed up the BiblioTech timeline.

“What is unique about Bexar County is the system of power that was created by hiring a County Manager. The position only exists in maybe one other county in the whole state of Texas. This leadership allowed the library project to consolidate power,” Wolff said, adding that the time saved by not having to get approval from multiple levels of management and by being able to filter information to where it was most needed was immeasurable.  

Another decision that allowed BiblioTech to get off the ground so quickly was the county’s choice to make an exception to the Request for Proposal (RFP) process, which is a county standard. The RFP bidding process systematically allows the county to obtain the best available pricing for commodities and professional services. The county ensures a competitive procurement process while also encouraging small, minority and women-owned businesses to participate. From advertising the proposal to awarding the selected vendor, the RFP process at a minimum takes 60 to 90 days to complete. The county’s decision to act as the construction manager and use internal professional staff enabled them to forgo the RFP process.

Banking BiblioTech



Funding a library project in today’s economy, with escalating government cutbacks, is a challenge within itself. The Hidalgo Foundation of Bexar County — a non-profit organization created in 2001 to assist with projects benefiting the county and its residents — played a key role in funding the $2.4 million project. 

Adding additional square footage to existing public library spaces is the norm when it comes to public library expansion. But additional square footage comes with a high price tag. To compare, in 2012, the city of McAllen, Texas, spent $24 million transforming an old Wal-Mart into a 123,000 square-foot public library, an upgrade from the city’s old 40,000 square-foot main library. 

Bexar County’s digital library had a much different cost estimate. The space required for shelves, books and storage just was not needed, dropping its costs from a traditional library down considerably. The county had start-up money from savings acquired from other capital projects. Generous donors included Toyota Motor Manufacturing Texas, The Greehey Family Foundation, and Spurs Sports & Entertainment.

BiblioTech’s annual operating budget is just $1.2 million, with most technology needing replaced after three to five years. 

“BiblioTech has established a strong presence throughout Bexar County, particularly within our 14 school districts where we have integrated our public library in school libraries.  Staff is also on-site at our military hospital, retirement centers and other key locations on a regular schedule to teach and assist users with our services,” Cole said. “We are also actively serving the County internally.  We provide library services and lead book clubs at our juvenile detention center as well as at our jail to support successful re-entry.  Our annual budget covers these services as well.

Full-time staff include a branch manager, a librarian, an assistant branch manager, an outreach coordinator and network architect, as well as 15 part-time technical assistants. 

“Our part-time staff assist in outreach, training and program development,” Cole said. “Our network architect is primarily responsible for all of our technology and is, for the most part, able to manage on his own. We do get specific support (remotely) from our vendors when the occasional need arises and we are always able to call on our county Information Technology department for additional support when we are working on big projects.”

Building BiblioTech



When the county decided to act as its own contractor to help speed up the process of building BiblioTech, it was the first time in the county’s history that such an undertaking had been attempted. But the timeline was essential because Bexar County not only wanted to be the first digital public library; it wanted the library to be operating by the start of the 2013-14 school year.

One of the most important duties of a general contractor is to direct the sequence of construction, which if done correctly can guarantee shorter timelines. Serving as its own contractor, the county was able to select subcontractors from The Texas Multiple Award Schedule (TXMAS), a program that compiles a list of existing competitively awarded government contractors that cater to the procurement needs of the state of Texas. 

Bexar County Director of Facilities and Parks Betty Bueche became the county’s General Contractor and led the construction teams, while Bexar County Capital Projects Manager Dan Curry acted as the Jobsite Supervisor. Though the duo had extensive experience and expertise in construction and large project management, their expertise didn’t include having a blueprint for building the next-era library. 

“I think with BiblioTech, there was unlimited potential. This was the first time it had been done and the future impact had yet to be determined. It truly was a transformational project for the community. It redefined the kind of service counties are willing to provide to their constituents,” Bueche said. 

The county knew that BiblioTech’s interior design would play a major role in creating the kind of experience it wanted to offer patrons, so it sought out some experts and asked Munoz Architects — with whom the county already had a pre-existing relationship — to help. The space’s design includes clean lines and bright colors.  

“We were able to get Munoz Architects to go in for free and develop the artistic design that we wanted. We told them what we were looking for — something that was different, something that represented the artistic design for this kind of space. They also came up with the name,” Wolff said.

Booking into BiblioTech

With today’s technology and social media demands, the days of card catalogs and bookshelves to the ceiling are most likely behind us. Twenty-first century libraries will focus more and more on creating community meeting spaces and learning centers rather than housing large book collections. Today’s library patrons want interactive technology, enhanced power connections and modern spaces to match their leading-edge technology — assuming they are even willing to leave the house. Now more than ever, people have round-the-clock access to the Internet and e-readers allow owners to check out books at any time, day or night.  With the amount of mobile and digital technology available, it’s easy to live outside the confines of hours of operation. 

Technology also brings with it an excitement regarding not only what is available, but what is possible — what has the potential to improve lives. That enthusiasm can turn a simple project into something that has the potential to go beyond anyone’s expectations. 

“BiblioTech energized a lot of county employees. It was a highly visible undertaking that lifted up our employees and gave them something new and different to do, not the everyday stuff they’re used to,” Wolff said. “When you give people the chance to do new things, many of them will step up and completely surprise you with how hard they work.” 

Every new visitor to BiblioTech is welcomed and offered a personal tour.  If the visitor is a county resident, they are offered a library card at the end of the tour and additional one-on-one time with staff until they become familiar with the available technology. Out-of-town visitors are offered a guest pass so they can utilize the software and see how everything works. Everyone is shown how to download eBooks to their own readers or smart device or onto one of readers that can be checked out from the library. The bilingual staff also offers individualized technology assistance to seniors and anyone with special needs. 

For all the library has given to its patrons, its staff has been given some unforgettable memories in return. 

Cole relayed a story about a young family’s recent visit, during which a twenty-something father revealed that the e-readers were of no use to him, because he could not read. 

“One of our staff offered him a children’s reader, which is enhanced with activities that help with learning how to read,” Cole said. “He started shaking, and his wife couldn’t stop crying. It was a really profound experience for him and the staff.”  

Endless Possibilities

Since its opening, BiblioTech has averaged 320 on-site patrons per day — more than 118,000 visitors in its first 14 months of operation. During the same time period, 67,569 eBook titles have been checked out, and e-readers have been checked out 6,464 times. Patrons are also allowed to check out iPads and laptops for an hour at a time within the library building. 

“The readers that we circulate externally do not have Internet capability,” Cole said. “E-books must be downloaded to the device at the library through a download software. The patron is not able to download their own material. The device has absolutely no functional value outside the context of our library. This has helped to mitigate loss.”

BiblioTech’s services and reach keeps expanding. 

BiblioTech’s programs have included the mailing of 8,000 personal letters to Bexar County residents serving in the Armed Forces. Each envelope included a library card with their login information so that they can download their own eBooks. 

BiblioTech also worked to assist county residents with signing up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius visited BiblioTech in February to promote the program. The free assistance was available through the end of March 2014, the ACA deadline for enrollment. 

Another partnership includes M.A.T.C.H (Mothers And Their Children), which began in 1984 to give incarcerated mothers more opportunities to interact with their children. BiblioTech now provides incarcerated mothers with e-readers and tablets so that they can study parenting books and read to their children during visits.

Its services have also expanded with the addition of Hoopla Digital, which allows patrons to access television shows, movies, music and audiobooks for free with BiblioTech registration.  Patrons can also choose from over 7,000 digital comics and graphic novels, while Mango Languages offers 64 different foreign languages and 17 English courses for patrons to learn, Residents can also utilize Atomic Training’s 85 different tech tutorials to brush up their computer skills or browse more than 70 popular magazine subscriptions.

BiblioTech has also already expanded since its introduction to the world in September 2013.  The first satellite location opened in March 2014 in the County Courthouse Central Jury Room, placing the state’s newest library model within the oldest continuously operating historic courthouse in Texas. *


 

Editor’s Note: Alicia Hays is the executive assistant to the Bexar County Manager. A different version of this article was originally published by the American Library Association. To learn more about the BiblioTech model or to take tour of the facility, contact Bexar County Public Information Officer Laura Jesse at (210) 335-0073 or ljesse@bexar.org or visit the website at www.bexarbibliotech.org.

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