Book review: Bexar BiblioTech: The Evolution of the Countrys First All-digital Public Library

BiblioTechBookAll right–so all-digital libraries are not for every city or every patron right now. The debate rages on, for example, about whether toddlers need paper pages to flip while enjoying the smell and feel.

Still, the BiblioTech library in Bexar County, Texas, is a landmark achievement worthy of local variants in countless cities in the U.S. and elsewhere. Have a large population of minorities or poor people, with many teenagers owning e-book-capable cell phones? Then if you’re a librarian or a local official overseeing the library system, you would be remiss in your duties if you did not read Bexar BiblioTech: The Evolution of the Country’s First All-digital Library, by Nelson Wolff, the visionary behind the country’s first all-digital public library system. He is judge of Bexar County, which includes the city of San Antonio. The title is roughly equivalent to the head of a county board. Significantly, Judge Wolff and his wife, Tracy, are donors and fund-raisers for BiblioTech and other civic causes.

Judge Wolff’s e-book, available through Amazon, B&N, Kobo and iTunes/iBooks, isn’t just a BiblioTech history with generous credit to such people as Administrator Laura Cole and Librarian Ashley Eklof. In effect it’s also a how-to.

Here’s why. Judge Wolff helped build a successful chain of health food stores (with a strict ban on outlandish claims of cancer cures, etc.), and the library world could learn from his passion for merchandising and architectural details as well as marketing. The judge saw that many of BiblioTech’s biggest fans would be the same people who frequented Apple stores, or hoped to be able to afford to. So BiblioTech replicated not just rows of computers but also bright colors. The actual name “BiblioTech” came from one of the architects, Geoff Edwards of the Munoz firm. “BiblioTech,” Judge Wolff writes, “represents books and technology and it is also a play” on bibliotheque, the French word for library, as well as on the Spanish biblioteca. “And since we would be serving a mostly Hispanic population, the name would reflect their heritage.”

Along the way, the self-made Judge Wolff shows a deep appreciation of the value of books as life-changers, as well as a deep respect for libraries as community institutions. Because BiblioTech was such a departure from a traditional library, the judge and colleagues had trouble recruiting a professional librarian from Texas. So they ended up with Ms. Eklof, who, although smart, gung-ho and digital-savvy, came from Wisconsin and did not speak Spanish. The solution? As branch manager, Judge Wolff hired a Hispanic woman, Catarina Velasquez, program director for the Baptist Child and Family Service’s Guadalupe Street Coffee, “an Internet cafe on the west side of San Antonio that served coffee and community programming and services. She was active in the community, providing job training for adults, employment opportunities.”

nelsonwolff5Has BiblioTech succeeded since opening on Sept. 14, 2013 to “bridge the literacy and technology gaps” in and near San Antonio? “During our first year we had 103,974 on-site visits; 31,676 registered patrons; 76,659 e-books checked out and 6,464 e-readers circulated,” Judge Wolff writes. “We had 160 community events to engage families in reading. Our efforts reached 61,675 family members.” BiblioTech has set up a physical branch in the county court house’s jury room to grow those numbers. Especially I like BiblioTech’s forthcoming presence in public housing and ambitions to expand elsewhere without need for scads of bookshelves. BiblioTech has also gone out of its way to reach out to the local school district. I don’t know what the results for the students and others will be in quantifiable terms, but BiblioTech can hardly hurt, given the well-documented connection between literacy levels and the availability of books and librarians. From Judge Wolff, here’s the human side for anyone obtuse enough to think BiblioTech is just parking kids in front of computers. “Santos…did not have the ideal home life, but once BiblioTech opened, he found a safe and welcoming place to come after school. He confided to one of our tech assistants that he wasn’t doing so well in reading. The staff then set up a regimen to read with him at least 30 minutes a day before he could get on the computer or play games. They helped him with homework and gave him the attention he likely wasn’t receiving at home.” Another positive, hardly a mere detail, is that BiblioTech was built at a cost of several million, which actually is a fraction of what a paper equivalent would have cost. Result? More money for content and staff expansion, potentially. What’s more, without such scutwork as checking paper books in and out or re-shelving them, librarians can focus more on helping patrons and on outreach.

bibliotech4For e-books, Judge Wolff has turned to the 3M Cloud Library and Smashwords, and today BiblioTech offers tens of thousands of titles, as indicated above–a nice start, even if, as I see it, we also need a national digital library endowment and related national collection and services. In Chapter 7, in fact, Judge Wolfe mentions LibraryCity’s endowment idea, for which I’m grateful. Let us also remember Judge Wolff’s willingness to back up his beliefs with his wallet. What better inspiration for the prospective contributors to the proposed national endowment? Here’s a multimillionaire with a DIY endowment, in effect, at the local level.

As I see it, the national endowment should help fund two separate national digital library systems. One could be academic and perhaps be Version 2.0 of the Digital Public Library of America, now mostly a collection of links of academic and archival interest. The other could provide the popular-level books so dear to typical library patrons and provide other services. Both could and should be tightly intertwined and share infrastructure and people and content, and, in fact, I’m delighted to see a DPLA link from the BiblioTech site. The main missions of public and academic libraries are so, so different, however. The publics are focused not just on works and services for the masses, but also on optimal presentation of content for Jane Patron. By contrast, academic libraries concentrate more on the discovery of new knowledge and much less on, say, the marketing of recreational reading for Jane and her family.

Needless to say, the proposed national digital public library system could learn plenty from BlibioTech and spread the lessons around through a best-practices network.

AshleyEklofMeanwhile, the plot thickens. One of my favorite DPLAers, Chair John Palfrey, is about to come out with a book called BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google, and I’m looking forward to finding out what lessons John has picked up from San Antonio, including, I hope, a realization of all the care needed not just in terms of content but also in terms of its popularization and absorption. “One big tent” of a national digital library system, as I see it, can’t handle it all even though K-12 students and everyone else should be able to access academic collections for school research projects, genealogy, and such. Maybe I can yet change DPLAers’ minds. Look, I even think there should be a joint e-catalog for optional use. I just don’t want academics, or those close to them and favoring similar priorities, to dominate at the expense of needs like young Santos’s. Two systems, please!

Let me end with a question. Will a paper edition of Bexar BiblioTech be along soon? Some of the local and national decision-makers most in need of Judge Wolff’s wisdom aren’t reading e-books right now. If any reason exists for them to start doing so–without a paper edition around at the moment–then his e-book is it.

Tip: For more on BiblioTech, check out past mentions on the LibraryCity site.

Suggestion: A publisher of books for the library world should ask Ms. Ekoff (photo) to write her own version of the events in Bexar and offer digital library how-to’s from a professional librarian’s perspective–nicely complementing Judge Wolff’s thoughts. She holds an MLIS degree and is an ALA member. Her book could include a chapter or appendix written with Ms. Velasquez on such outreach-related challenges as making e-books visible in a community through posters and otherwise. The book could also explore such options as cell phone book clubs and the digital library needs of America’s fast-growing Hispanic population.

Update, 5 p.m., Feb. 13, 2015: TV interview with Judge Wolff.

Editor’s note: republished with permission of librarycity.

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