4 lessons from the first all digital public library in the US

BiblioTech library in Bexar County

Being first isn’t easy. There are no models to replicate, no best practices to follow.  If there is any to be had, the confidence offered by research and planning looks more like mildly mitigated risk, and the only presenting certainty is that it will be a bumpy road rife with failures, great and small, and unlimited course corrections. Still, after all the best and worst case scenarios, after all the “what ifs” and after all is said and done, sometimes, the only way to know for sure, is to do. This is the context in which BiblioTech was born.  

The big experiment

In September, 2013, Bexar County launched BiblioTech, the first all digital public library in the United States.  I still marvel at the courage displayed by Bexar County officials in its implementation. County Judge Nelson Wolff was aware that an all-digital public library had never been done. He also knew that similar, smaller-scaled projects had failed. Wolff is far from timid, however, not one to back away from a challenge; and the challenge facing him was growing every day.  

Bexar County’s explosive population growth on its perimeter meant that an increasing number of library patrons were living further away from municipally operated branch libraries. The obvious solution was to invest in a library that is neither defined, nor confined, by physical space. Bexar County was new to the business of libraries.  Since 1938, the county has contributed to the City of San Antonio for the provision of library services to county residents who live outside of city limits.  Wolff envisioned a complementary library service, one that was laser-focused in its mission and service, and one that would deliver more for less. 

 After 11 months of deliberation and the hard work of many dedicated county employees, BiblioTech opened its doors, operating on the proverbial "wing and a prayer."  Will it work? Can we achieve our goals? How will the library community react?  How will the public receive it?  Two and half years and over 85,000 patrons later, we have some of those answers.  While we do not know exactly what BiblioTech will look like in ten years, the past thirty-one months has taught us that we are definitely on the right track. .

Lessons Learned 

1. We were right, even about the bumpy road part

Bexar County acted on the assumption that the timing was right for an all-digital public library.  Past efforts have failed, in part, because the public simply was not ready.  In the fast-paced world of technology, even three or four years can mean the difference between universal product acceptance and product rejection; between success and failure.  

In 2007, the iPhone emerged and was named Time magazine’s Invention of the Year.  In 2013, the opportunity was ripe and Bexar County was prepared to ride the technology momentum.  BiblioTech’s acceptance can also be attributed to the fact that it was a new, complementary, library system, rather than a replacement. In the past, the public categorically rejected projects that attempted to replace paper collections with digital collections.  The concept was far too threatening for the average library patron.  BiblioTech offered the public more content, without forcing them to surrender any of their existing service.   The public was ready.

County officials were also keenly aware of the fact that a digital library is of absolutely no value to patrons without the benefit of Internet or technology access. 

Bexar County is faced with a significant digital divide.  We recognized that technology access would be critical to BiblioTech’s success. Branch libraries would be needed to serve as technology access points in challenged areas and we would need to provide a solution for patrons without the devices to support digital reading. We opened our inaugural branch in the heart of the south side of San Antonio where it is estimated that 70% of homes do not have a broadband Internet connection and where 100% of district students receive free lunch.  

BiblioTech offers free Wi-Fi on 48 state of the art computers, complete with a full complement of computer software programs, a luxury for those living on limited means. Our 4,800 square foot location also provides meeting and classroom spaces. The only things missing from this library, are shelves filled with paper books.  Instead, we download library content on basic e-readers, which are externally circulated for a two-week period. To date, we have logged over 37,000 patron desktop sessions and over 12,000 e-reader circulations – numbers that attest to the dramatic need of the area.

BiblioTech’s implementation has not been stress-free, and our bumpy road materialized, just as predicted. Fortunately, BiblioTech was prepared for the inevitability and equally prepared to make corrections along the way. Complications like device reliability, and technology updates continue to bedevil us frequently and require immediate attention.  A temporary Internet service interruption might be a minor blip in the radar for a traditional library.  For BiblioTech, that same temporary service interruption threatens our entire service delivery. 

2. Stick to the mission, but test the limits

BiblioTech’s mission is to provide technology access to all Bexar County residents for the purposes of enhancing literacy and education, promoting reading as recreation and equipping members of our community with necessary tools to thrive as citizens of the 21st century.  Its model is built on the foundational pillars of resources, access and education.  

BiblioTech is, above all, a public library.  It could be easy to be sidetracked. Temptations to divert our focus to “technology center” have been many.  Indeed, this difference is often difficult to discern as the lines between traditional and digital literacy become increasingly blurred. These blurred lines are precisely those which BiblioTech endeavors to cross.  When questions arise, we are compelled to revisit our mission, with emphasis on education. Our patrons are willing, but they are not always able. Technology is embedded in every function of our lives, but education is the key to making it work.  All of our library programming is framed around a technology component, with library content and resources as the backbone to support it.  

Educational support outside of the library walls was the driving force behind BiblioTech EDU, our partnership with 14 school districts in Bexar County.  Bexar County donated 520 reading devices to middle schools and high schools throughout Bexar County.  During the 2014-2015 academic year, our Outreach staff conducted library presentations and registered 16,263 student library patrons.  58 Bexar County schools now enjoy expanded libraries through the integration of BiblioTech.  

3. We can do it all, but not by ourselves

Digital technology allows us to spread wide, but we cannot afford to spread thin. Digital means that our library can provide unlimited service in unlimited capacities throughout the county.  Our Outreach staff, however, is very limited in number.  In order to provide the robust support that has become a signature of BiblioTech, we need to enlist the help of on-site librarians.  Bexar County is home to three military bases, struggling under constrained federal budgets. Bexar County was able to provide relief for base libraries by engaging in a partnership which allows BiblioTech access to base residents through donated reading devices and on-site kiosks.  BiblioTech staff trained base librarians to assist residents with registration, utilization of resources and content download. This "train the trainer" model allows us to cast a wider net for patron service while ensuring sustainability.  It has also become the staple format as we expand to other areas.

4. Embrace our idiosyncrasies

We understood from the outset that BiblioTech would be unlike any existing public library.  Our uniqueness compels us to seek out creative opportunities to serve – ways where digital is capable of doing what paper cannot.  We need to live into our nature.  Digital means we can go anywhere, regardless of available space.  BiblioTech’s scalability allowed us to establish our second branch library within 2,100 square feet of space in a San Antonio Public Housing development.  Public library service delivered to residents in their homes is life changing, particularly for those without means to afford technology. The juxtaposition of library and public housing has proven so successful, we plan to open another branch in a second public housing development in February 2017.  Being unique also affords whimsy.  We’ve learned to enjoy that, too.  

One of our biggest program successes of the past year was a student video competition and screening based on Newbery Award winning books.  The screening was produced in partnership with a local grocery chain and was promoted to schools and student groups throughout the county. The San Antonio 90 Second Newbery Screening taught us that it isn’t all about the work. The library needs to have a little fun to keep its appeal, and technology is just plain fun.

The beauty of being first

Being bold can be frightening, but is not without its positives.  In the absence of existing models to use as yardsticks for success, BiblioTech is free to make its own rules, to test its own boundaries, to try and fail gloriously.  With so many opportunities available to us, there will undoubtedly be those we pursue with the best of intentions, only to find that they are impractical or untenable.  We will do our best to use our own experience as the litmus test, but our ambition may still overreach our capacity.  Happily, we will be first ones on the other side to say we did it wrong.

 

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