A computer work station at the Central Library in downtown San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.
A computer work station at the Central Library in downtown San Antonio in 2015. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The San Antonio Public Library (SAPL) plans to upgrade its technology services citywide by making library card registration and free Internet usage more accessible.

The library system’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2016 includes $1 million for updating computers and software at the existing branches as well as the SAPL’s website. The funds will also support expanding broadband internet capability, adding collaborative technology in some library meeting rooms, and enabling library account registration entirely online.

Library Director Ramiro Salazar told City Council on Thursday that providing full library card registration online could raise the number of library cards issued. The idea is to make it easier for someone to register for a card from home or on a mobile device.

Last fiscal year, SAPL’s website received 3.5 million visits, and 73,261 new library cards were issued. Currently only 2% of library patrons use the limited “sign up” option available for a temporary library card.

During August, more than 140 patrons used the online method to sign up for a temporary library card. This card allows patrons to place books on hold and access databases.

Patrons cannot check out items or access other library features until they visit a library branch in person. This month, 7,308 patrons signed up for a library card in-person at a branch location.

During this past fiscal year, the system introduced a library app that is available for Apple and Android phones. People can use the app to search the SAPL’s catalog of books and DVDs, and even place a hold on a desired item before picking it up.

SAPL has long been innovative among library systems in major U.S. cities. It was one of the first to offer a full digital collection, starting in 2007. The collection has since grown to more than 65,000 ebooks and eaudiobooks, along with streaming media, magazines, and millions of songs available to download.

Confetti shoots out of in celebration of the opening of the Dr. Ricardo Roma Bibliotech Digital Library. Photo by Scott Ball.
Confetti is dropped in celebration of the opening of the Dr. Ricardo Romo BiblioTech Digital Library. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Officials feel together with the development of BiblioTech in Bexar County, the nation’s first all-digital public library, SAPL can offer even more digital products and help to fill literacy and technology gaps across the San Antonio area According to Salazar, 40% of Bexar County households have no access to broadband. All of the SAPL’s existing locations reported a total of 2.3 million hours of Internet usage in 2014.

“For many, the library is the only place for people to access broadband,” Salazar said, citing the city’s oldest and youngest inhabitants. “We’re helping to create a city of readers.”

Ignacio Albarracin, SAPL’s coordinator of digital services, said the library system is exploring ways to better serve Millennials, the newest and largest generation in U.S. history. People born between 1980 and 2000 currently number an estimated 584,000 in San Antonio, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Calling Millennials “connected consumers,” Albarracin explained today’s teenagers and early twenty-somethings have less money to spend. Those who are 25 have more student loans to pay, as many came of age during the recession of 2008.

As a result, Albarracin said, Millennials want the convenience of access to products without the burdens of ownership.

This fiscal year has seen the expansion of the teen space at the Central Library branch. SAPL’s teen services coordinator Jennifer Velasquez has said Millennials want access to technology they cannot afford, and a dedicated public space for a shared experience.

Albarracin added the library is the ideal place for Millennials to enjoy a variety of services and products for educational and recreational purposes.

“We are witnesses of the emergence of a new generation of adults that has a unique set of expectations,” Albarracin said. “If the library can better serve Millennials, we can better serve everyone.”

Two teenagers read a book at the newly opened Teen Library in the Central Library. Photo by Scott Ball.
Two teenagers read a book at the new Teen Library. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Mayor Ivy Taylor said the innovative approach to the library system will help keep libraries relevant in the 21st century. Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3) said she appreciates how the SAPL, along with BiblioTech, are providing technology to a widening part of the population. BiblioTech has registered 65,200 patrons, and provided access to thousands of books, music and movie collections in the last two years.

“That tells our story of the digital divide,” she said. “They aren’t just trying to fill the gap. Our libraries are also our new community centers.”

BiblioTech announced its intent to reduce its payment to the city by $300,000 in fiscal year 2016, which Council member Mike Gallagher (D10) pointed out. But Salazar and other SAPL officials said BiblioTech is redirecting that money to obtain content that is made accessible to all county residents.

Answering a question by Councilmember Alan Warrick II (D2), Salazar said the library system provides “a tremendous amount of resources for parents who home school their kids.” He said home schooled students receive privileges such as extended borrowing periods.

Councilmember Joe Krier (D9) questioned the preparedness of the library system if the city obtains 200,000 people through annexation in the next few years. So far, the system has responded to the city’s growth. SAPL opened an Encino Park area library this year and has started construction on new libraries in Council District 2 and in District 6.

“We are already thinking about that (future growth), strategizing and coordinating efforts,” Salazar replied.

Salazar also said while SAPL and BiblioTech are increasing their digital content to meet rising demand, there’s an effort to strike some sort of balance with print books and periodicals that many Millennials also appreciate, he added.

*Featured/top image: A computer work station at the Central Library in downtown San Antonio.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.