Last year LibraryCity.org knocked the library system in Rockford, Illinois, for planning to spend around a quarter of its $1.19-million collection budget on e-books.
A third of Rockfordians were living below the poverty line in 2009 by one estimate. And yet the local library initially wanted to start out with just 50 Kindle e-readers--hardly the best solution for people too poor or technophobic to buy and use e-book devices. The local NAACP and other groups yelled foul, just as they should have.
So what's happening down in Bexar County, Texas? BiblioTech, the world's first all-digital public library system, opened there September 14 even though a third of the residents in the immediate neighborhood of the first branch lack Internet connections.
Bexar includes the city of San Antonio, which has a traditional library system with 24 branches and an e-book collection that at this point is bigger than the county's. Still, what about the not-so-well-served parts of the county? This is where the new e-library system could particularly do a world of good, both among smart-phone-toting teenagers and people on the wrong side of the digital divide, which BiblioTech will seek to narrow with an E-oriented staff and face-to-face assistance. It will also offer e-books from the 3M collection rather than the OverDrive service that the city system uses.
In the present post on BiblioTech, I'll convey only preliminary impressions from afar, based on pre- and after-opening news accounts from a local newspaper (here and here), Time, ABC affiliate KSAT (video here), NBC News (video), Time Magazine, American Libraries, LibraryJournal/INFOdocket, the BBC, Texas Public Radio (audio of interview with BiblioTech's head librarian) and a Publishers Weekly blog. But as suggested by the images of the crowd on the opening day, BiblioTech indeed seems off to a great start, and understandably so--given all the thoughtfulness that Bexar has shown compared to Rockford. Some 2,000 had already applied for library cards by September 9, and I suspect many were not existing cardholders in other systems. That in itself is a wonderful achievement.
Why the interest? The library offers 600 e-readers, 200 preloaded tablets for children, 48 desktop computers, and 20 iPads and laptops; patrons can check out e-readers (and maybe other equipment?). And as you can see from the photo below from BiblioTech's Facebook page, the library also comes with eager young humans to help get people up to speed on the technology. Check out the page to see for yourself. Meanwhile, between juggling around other tasks, the librarians have started an online book club via Goodreads.
The above picture is apparently from an architect's office. I was pleased to see news shots of the completed library showing real chairs (not simply stools), best for extended research and reading sessions. Certainly I can appreciate the possibilities of replicating an environment that has worked so well for Apple Stores. Besides, people can actually check out readers and even download books to read in the comfort of home.
Seeing the images of the opening of BiblioTech, I can't help but be moved. On July 6, 1992, Computerworld published the original version of my TeleRead proposal (as I called it then), much evolved over the years. I said we not only should get library e-books online in a major way but also make certain that public library patrons had the right hardware to read them with. Now a variant of the hardware component of the TeleRead vision, still part of the LibraryCity one, is happening in real life in Bexar County. Kudos to Judge Nelson Wolff, the main county official, seen below in an image from a Today Show video!
Keep in mind, of course, that this experiment is just starting. All kinds of questions arise, especially without my being in Bexar:
-How can the new virtual system make people aware of the e-content in general and individual titles, beyond the wise step of reaching out through Goodreads? It isn't enough just to offer books and e-readers. The good news is that at least one of the local newspapers ran a guide to using the library, and perhaps BiblioTech can persuade it to publish regular book reviews and in other ways to highlight the offerings. I can also envision further TV and radio publicity and posters and browsable book-cover images on video screens in well-trafficked local shopping areas. Maybe all or some of this is already happening.
-Is the location (on the South Side of San Antonio) right? One of the critics says--I don't know if it's true--that the library is in an out-of-the-way area. Library defenders say the library went where it was needed; besides, it uses an existing county facility. Regular buses from the schools might help the transportation-challenged if options aren't available now. Of course, the ultimate solution might be BiblioTech branches in other parts of the county--one way to make it easier for people to enjoy in-library activities such as story-telling hours or appearances by local writers and others. Yes, I'm assuming that those activities will be available. True?
-How about nonbook digital resources, such as 3D printing, a possibility mentioned in INFOdocket? I see books and other texts, including databases, as the first priority by far. But what about makerspaces in the future if they are not present already.
-Just how much traditional library-style reading guidance will patrons enjoy, both online and in the library itself? Reader advisory fans will be glad to know that the head librarian, Ashley J. Eklof, holds a masters of library and information science degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. According to a news release , "She brings to BiblioTech six years of experience in academic, public and school libraries. Eklof's experience includes collection management, cataloging, filing, reference services, budgeting and finances, customer service and technology troubleshooting." Her hiring surely must be a major reason why BlibioTech has already won state accreditation, which will enable it to share resources with other Texas libraries.
-What about paper books for younger readers? BiblioTech is offering them color e-books via tablets. Will that be enough? For now, I myself would favor p-books as well for them, simply because younger kids may benefit from the traditional books existing as objects they can feel. Research in this area goes on.
-How much cooperation and what kinds will exist between the library and local schools---and senior citizen centers? The elderly, particularly those with mobility challenges, could be helped along with the young. Some of the best family literacy efforts might involve grandparents and grandchildren--both generations learning from each other. The young know the technology. The old come with their own, more traditional knowledge. I'd hope that the Bexar County system would be keen on all forms of family literacy. Ideally Ms. Eklof and and Judge Wolff will read a recent LibraryCity commentary, Family literacy and K-12 success: How a well-stocked public e-library system for the U.S. could help our students catch up with 'The Smartest Kids in the World.' I'd love to know about family literacy programs now underway or planned in the county system. Meanwhile, Leslie Ann Garza, a public information officer with the Harlandale school district within the county, has been quoted as hailing BiblioTech as "a source for reading materials, information and technology like no other."
-How will the costs ultimately shake out? Some major publishers charge more for e-books than paper books, or limit the number of checkouts per purchased e-copy, so that, even if e-books don't wear out, there still may be some noticeable recurring costs. Balancing that out, however, is that at $2.5 million to build, BiblioTech might be much cheaper per books than traditional alternatives--at least if the collection can grow. The library will able to invest at least some of the saved money to finance future collections.
-Speaking of collections, how long will the country take to expand this one from the current 10,000 e-books? Yes, expansion is promised, at another 10,000 annually, and I wish Bexar all kinds of luck at it. Let's also hope that more books will be digitized, period. Many old and new books and other items aren't online. One positive is BiblioTech's Web links to the Digital Public Library of America, Project Gutenberg and other sources of free books and other items, including audio books. I've criticized the DPLA for not caring enough about mainstream public library content, and I stand by that; but I'm very much gung ho on the DPLA as a source of out-of-copyright books and historical materials. What's more, especially in a history-rich area--San Antonio is the home of the Alamo--I hope that Bexar will participate in the DPLA's history-heavy digitization project if it isn't doing so already.
Regardless of the inevitable questions, I'm a huge fan of what Judge Wolff and colleagues have done, in defiance of the conservatism of not all but many powerful people in the American library establishment. This smugness, alas, could eventually cause public libraries to be Amazoned and Googled away despite their present popularity, or at least greatly diminished, the way the newspaper industry has been. Just read this masterful account of the decline of the Washington Post if you doubt the risk of lack of action.
While BiblioTech has limits, as Judge Wolff would probably be among the first to acknowledge, his e-strategy allows plenty of room for growth in both the physical and virtual worlds. The BiblioTech model would be especially valuable if a national digital library endowment and related initiatives come about. Consider how well BiblioTech could fare with a genuine public e-library system for the U.S. (focused on family literacy, the digital divide and other grassroots concerns and respectful of mass culture), along with a separate but very tightly intertwined academic system (also universally accessible and sharing many gigs of content and a common technical services organization with the public system).
Bexar County's estimated 18 percent poverty rate is no match for Appalachia's, but it isn't Beverly Hills's, either, and it could benefit from a nationally financed approach to augment local tax money and philanthropy. Some years ago, in a San Antonio case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school districts could be financed by local property taxes despite the inherent inequalities. One school in a well-off area offered 9.42 books per student, while another in a not-so-well-off neighborhood had to make do with 3.9 books per student. The same inequalities are present not just in school libraries but also in U.S. public libraries as a whole. I hope that Judge Wolff and colleagues will appreciate how well the BiblioTech vision could fare with the endowment and those two national digital library systems. Also coming out ahead would be Beverly Hills, since well-shared resources mean more content for all. See an earlier LibraryCity post, Dwarf-sized public libraries vs. information abundance (and lest publishers panic, they should also check out Toward a Library-Publisher complex for the digital-era: Where the money is for both sides).
In seeking accreditation, BiblioTech showed its appreciation of the power of sharing at the state level. Now imagine the power of truly massive sharing at the national one, especially with a centralized procurement system to help drive down costs (while at the same time leaving local systems free to buy items outside the national system and otherwise respecting local autonomy). How about a "Yes, we can" from Obama and the rest of D.C., when the budget-debate horrors relent enough to discuss other issues? Judge Nelson, as I understand it, was able to make his digital library dreams a reality within a year. A role model for other politicians? The kids need improved and expanded e-libraries now. Do something!
Editor's note - this article was re-published with the author's permission from his blog, Library City.