BiblioTech: a library without books

BiblioTech library in Bexar County

I recently attended a committee meeting of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. I listened as a librarian from a small municipal library lamented that Stephen King cannot write another book because she simply does not have the shelf space for another 800 page tome.  

Her weeding process is sound. She maximises every inch of every square foot in her library.  She has designed and redesigned her floor space to capitalize on every nook and cranny available to her.  Still, she is forced to make decisions about the growth and development of her collection based upon criteria that may not serve the patron in the long run.  

My mind immediately ran through all the weighty concerns that we, at BiblioTech, deal with every day - those things that keep me awake at night. I thought about our programming development, our outreach, our registration efforts and our technology demands. I thought about our community partnerships, our school and senior citizen collaborations and our literacy initiatives. I thought about library accessibility for the disabled, the disadvantaged and the incarcerated. Finally, I thought how immensely grateful I am that I can devote my attention to these issues and never have to worry about managing floor space.

The first all digital public library in the US

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff is the visionary behind BiblioTech, the first all digital public library in the United States. He saw a growing need and wanted to accomplish two primary goals - 1) break down the barriers to reading and 2) provide service to disadvantaged populations.

Bexar County, with a total population of 1.7 million, is experiencing explosive growth outside of the city limits of San Antonio. The direct result of perimeter growth is that the library patron is further and further away from the city's branch libraries. 

In Autumn 2012, I was fortunate to be part of a team of County officials charged with examining the best, most cost effective way to provide library services to a population that is geographically distanced from available services.

A digital library was an obvious choice. Geography doesn't matter if your library is in the cloud - nor does the size of your building. Within 11 months of conception, BiblioTech opened its doors to the public on September 14, 2013.

Why does a digital library need a physical space?

We recognised that a library is far more than a repository for books. The social function of library as the "third space" for the community needed to be addressed. 

We found the perfect answer in the unfinished space of a county owned facility on San Antonio's southside, an economically challenged area of the county. With a mere 4,800 square feet we can offer classes, provide meeting space, school tutoring and children's reading programs. We have study rooms for group projects, a reading lounge, a cafe with light refreshments available and a community room for meetings and larger classes.

Our digital has found a partner in the physical.  Further, a digital library is of no use to those without technology access.   Our physical location provides technology access where consumer buying power and internet access are severely limited.

We have 600 basic e-readers available for external circulation as well as 200 enhanced e-readers pre-loaded with children's content - also available for external circulation.  We have reading accommodations  and adaptive technology for the visually impaired.  Within the walls of our library, we have 48 desktop computers, 40 IPads and 10 laptops available for internal circulation.  Our space includes a children's area with 4 surface tables and interactive wall screens with learning software.

A digital library necessitates a change in service model

Thankfully, we don't have the facility considerations that paper book maintenance requires - reinforced floors to accommodate the weight of books, temperature and humidity controls, space for stacks and storage.  

The most exciting thing about our space, (or lack thereof) is that our staff can dedicate their time to direct patron service - they don't have to be tied up with re-shelving, filing, cataloging, etc.  Our staff spend the vast majority of their time providing one-on-one instruction with patrons; teaching them how to use devices, how to source materials, how to download books, etc.  

Ours is a much more interactive environment than the traditional bricks and mortar library.  The librarian is no longer the gatekeeper of information, but rather, an instructor and fellow explorer in accessing information. 

A digital library necessitates a change in service model. Technology affords the ability to invert our service delivery.  Rather than having the public come to the library, at BiblioTech we focus on outreach - bringing the library to the public

All of our collection is available from the comfort of your own home

The obvious benefit is that our library is not confined by space, nor is it trapped within our building. Our collection currently has over 25,000 e-books and will continue to grow annually. We also over 400 audio books,  movies, music, television programs, magazines, graphic novels, databases, language learning programs and software education programs. 

All of our collection is available from the comfort of your own home - or anywhere else you have access to wi-fi.  At BiblioTech, we believe that reading should be in your hands - not behind our walls.

The opportunities are limitless

Our library has an undeniable cost advantage over a traditional library. We can perform all the same functions of a traditional library with only 4,800 square feet of space as opposed to 14,000-15,000 square feet required of a typical branch library.  We built our library inside and out for about $2.2 million, considerably less expensive than what a traditional library would cost (probably about a1/3 of the cost). It is entirely scalable and can find a home through a variety of iterations.  

In January 2014, we opened a satellite "branch" in the Central Jury room of the County courthouse.  Branch is interpreted rather loosely, here.  We have a small circulation desk, staff available to register patrons for our service, teach about our resources, and circulate reading devices should jurors find themselves trapped for several hours without a good book.  We have established a presence at a local military hospital as our way of saying "thank you" to those who serve.  The opportunities are limitless.

As BiblioTech grows in presence throughout Bexar County, concerns about its development will continue to weigh heavily on my mind in the wee hours of the night.  I will continue to lose sleep.   I will toss and turn not because I am unable to find room for more shelves, but because I'm struggling to find exactly the right staff person to lead the book club at the juvenile detention center.  I think that's a concern worthy of a bit of sleep deprivation.

How do you define a library? Are books an essential part of a library's role?

Let us know in the comments below


Image source: Bexar County, March 2014. BiblioTech. [photograph] (from a BiblioTech Bexar County Digital Library brochure)

Blog comment archive

We installed a new blog comment system called Disqus on 19/08/14. We were unable to import comments from our previous system so have copied any comments previously made on this blog post below:

BiblioTech: a library without books
Submitted by Stephen Bowman on Thu, 14/08/2014 - 3:30pm
A fantastic development/achievement - more power to Laura and Bexar County! I would be interested in the licencing structure for the materials! Cheers,

Response to your question
Submitted by Laura Cole on Fri, 15/08/2014 - 10:22pm
Stephen - thank you for your support. We have a variety of licensing arrangements depending upon the materials platform. Feel free to contact me at and I can address this in greater detail. Thanks.

BiblioTech: a library without books
Submitted by Pamela Ruth Gel... on Sun, 17/08/2014 - 9:13am
Really inspirational! May many more follow.


Read our blog comment guidelines