A digital twist on the library

BiblioTech in San Antonio, Texas has been getting a lot of press lately about being the first digital public library in the United States. So when I visited the city recently, I had to stop by this “bookless” library and see what the fuss was all about.

Where are the books?

When I walked in, the first thing I saw were neat rows of computer terminals. “Oh yes, people ask us where the books are,” Bexar County Library staff member Miguel told me. “We get that all the time.”

Instead of books, it offers digital resources, including 20,000 e-books through the 3M Cloud Library and thousands of movies, music, tv shows, magazines, and language programs through additional databases. Its comics and graphic novel collection alone includes over 7,000 items.

These are available on 48 public access Mac desktops, a tablet bar of 40 iPads and 10 laptops for quick information, 4 Microsoft Surface tables, 2 Xbox 360 Kinects for digital games, and 800 eReaders and Nooks for loan. Membership to BiblioTech is free to all Bexar County residents, taxpayers, and employees.

I asked Miguel why a physical library was necessary if everything was available online. “We want a presence in the community,” he said. The positioning of the library in the city’s economically depressed South Side underlines its commitment to bridging social and economic gaps in the County.

Besides offering access to technological equipment (which many people still do not have), BiblioTech offers community-driven programming, such as blogging classes, genealogy assistance, and children’s story times. They also have one-to-one technology tutorials and live chat sessions on the BiblioTech website. People can also bring in their own devices and use the free WiFi in the Reading Commons Area and can book the small group study spaces or community room.

So how did all this happen?

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff was inspired with the possibility of an all-digital library after reading Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ biography. He presented his idea to Bexar County officials, and, on September 14, 2013, BiblioTech opened its doors. It immediately garnered national publicity due to its innovative concept. “We are getting a great response,” Miguel said. “We get people from all over who want to see how it works.”

I was curious to know how the County put this together, considering that technology is not cheap. With the library costing $2.3 million dollars to set up, much of it was made possible through sponsorship and donations from local companies, organizations, and foundations, including the San Antonio Spurs basketball franchise, who funded equipment in the Children’s Area, and Zachry Construction Corporation, who sponsored the Reading Commons Area.

The future of libraries?

BiblioTech may not have the ambiance of a traditional library with shelves of books, but it still offers many of the same concepts and activities, but with a digital twist. Its current display about civil rights activist Cesar Chavez is presented digitally, projected onto the glass walls of the Commons Area. Art work by students at the University of Texas at San Antonio is displayed on monitors in the study rooms and over the tablet bar. There’s even a mascot, an owl, which interacts with a special app that users can download.

Most public libraries already provide access to computers, e-books, eReaders, and computer training, but BiblioTech has taken it several steps further, imagining what the digital future of a library could look like. Although I am a die-hard book lover and enjoy the look and smell of physical books, I know that digital resources are here to stay and will soon change our idea of what a library is. BiblioTech offers an intriguing peek into the possibilities of that future.

For more information, visit BiblioTech online!