Photo by Lily Casura.
Photo by Lily Casura.

Editor’s note: A technical issue prevented publication of this article Sunday.

The drab, gray, industrial façade of the building that houses the Bexar County Digital Library, better known as BiblioTech, celebrated its first birthday last week. The outside gives no hint of the vibrant, colorful, high-tech offerings packed within its book-free walls. Just as I arrived,  a family of five was departing with great excitement and tablets in hand.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had such a good time at an event with my grandchildren before,” Clara Aragon, a local counselor, said as we briefly chatted.

Festive cupcakes in BiblioTech's colors celebrate its first birthday on Saturday. Photo by Lily Casura.
Festive cupcakes in BiblioTech’s colors celebrate its first birthday on Saturday. Photo by Lily Casura.

Aragon came to BiblioTech’s first birthday celebration with her daughter and three grandchildren — two of whom excitedly clutched e-readers wrapped in clear plastic for the trip home, where they could peruse books that they’d loaded at the library.

It’s likely that one day all libraries will house more digital offerings than hard copy books, CDs and DVDs. The San Antonio Public Library system already is a hybrid system, offering both traditional digital services and using an array of free app to make it easy for members to access books, music, films and more.

For now, however, BiblioTech is pretty much one of a kind: A 4,800-square-foot, all-digital library – the first of its kind in the U.S., according to its website.

The library owes its existence to Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who hopes County Commissioners will fund additional BiblioTechs, including one budgeted for 2015 on the city’s Eastside, where the city’s San Antonio Public Library system already is planning a $6 million branch library set on a six-acre campus with an additional $100,00 for public art.

The prospect of two library systems, even if one is all-digital, has created tensions between the city and public library staff on one side and Wolff and BiblioTech advocates on the other. Complicating the matter is the annual $3.7 million payment the County makes to the City that gives more than 400,000 county residents free access to the public library system. City officials say that payment doesn’t cover the costs of serving those users, while Wolff wants to begin reducing the contribution starting next year.

As Wolff told the Rivard Report last month, “Our concept is to take the library to users. They don’t come to you. The world is changing.”

At BiblioTech, everything’s brand-new and shiny. Every seat in the computer room that forms the centerpiece of the library was occupied by a child or young adult. Two boys had headphones on — you can buy those for $1 at the desk — and were playing video games with each other in adjoining seats. A handful were surfing Facebook, but most of the young adults there seemed to be actually reading or working on school assignments and homework.

BiblioTech on a weekend afternoon was a very busy place, and the vibe was positive and pleasant. With a color scheme of vibrant orange, light blue, and bright green, the overall feel was more European café than library.

The festivities marking BiblioTech’s first birthday included Korean dancers, the screening of a short film, poetry readings, an author panel, a photo booth, a young adults book discussion, and lots of cupcakes in the library’s signature colors.

A boy and a girl play an electronic game at a table in the children's room at BiblioTech. Photo by Lily Casura.
A boy and a girl play an electronic game at a table in the children’s room at BiblioTech. Photo by Lily Casura.

But BiblioTech was enjoying a full house, irrespective of the anniversary celebration. There’s a children’s room off the main room, and it’s like a mini-Discovery Museum for families. Kids sat at child-sized tables and chairs, playing games or reading children’s books on small devices, while mothers sat nearby and read their phones or squished into tiny chairs themselves, joining in the family fun. Flat screen televisions lined the walls, and game tables beckoned. The children’s room is large and roomy — but again, every station was occupied by children and parents spending time together.

In July, BiblioTech won a “Best of Texas” award for its technological innovation and the multiple public-private partnerships that came together to create it. The all-digital library offers patrons 600 loanable e-readers they can use to download material from the cloud — or pre-load offerings at the library instead if they do not have Internet access at home.

While the debate about the future look and role of libraries will continue, along with who will build them and pay for them, BiblioTech clearly has found a market. It’s basically a center of free technology and people are using it.

The Pew Research Center’s “Internet & American Life Project” released a report this summer about libraries in the digital age. One significant shift the researchers found was that from libraries as “houses of knowledge” to libraries as “houses of access.”

“Our most popular area is the public access computers,” said one librarian quoted in the study. “Some 77% of Americans now think it is ‘very important’ for libraries to provide books, free access to computers and…Internet.”

In cities such as San Antonio, “the Digital Divide” comes into play. According to a separate finding by Pew, Internet access is one of the first bills to be cut by lower-income families, creating a disparity in access among the haves and have-nots. Consequently, Hispanics and those in lower-income households are more likely to say that “public library services are very important to them and their families,” according to Pew.

Libraries are important for books, yes, but increasingly for other services, as well.  San Antonio’s public library advocates stress the role of library as community and learning center that house adult education programs, for example. Pew cites quiet spaces, research resources, youth programs, job search assistance, help applying to government services, and programs for adults as just some of the other reasons young and old are drawn to public libraries.

In February, after Wolff and BiblioTech won a national government technology award, he described it as having a dual mission: “To go into an area of the county that was economically disadvantaged and didn’t have access to technology and put in a first-class system. And to break down the barriers to reading and make it easier for people to check out ebooks.”

The main room at BiblioTech, buzzing with activity on a Saturday afternoon. Photo by Lily Casura.
The main room at BiblioTech, buzzing with activity on a Saturday afternoon. Photo by Lily Casura.

Whatever still needs to be hashed out about BiblioTech from a funding angle, the library itself seems to be squarely in line with the vision of the future as Pew and others have described it. That explains the media coverage it’s enjoyed from all over the world. And it also explains the happy family I met at the entrance Saturday.

“I am very impressed!” Clara Aragon wrote on Facebook. “BiblioTech was educational and interactive, the staff is super-friendly and helpful. Kids were given snacks and drinks. I would say this was the best trip I’ve had with the grandkids!”

BiblioTech is located at 3505 Pleasanton Rd. on the city’s Southside, adjacent to the Bexar County Precinct 1 offices.

*Featured image: Clara Aragon (in white), her daughter, and three grandchildren leave BiblioTech’s first anniversary festivities on Saturday with big smiles on their faces and two e-reader tablets for home. Photo by Lily Casura.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the San Antonio Public Library is planning a $6 million branch library (not $17 million) and more than 400,000 Bexar County residents (not 200,000) have free access to the city’s public library system.

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Lily Casura

Lily Casura, MSW, is the Director of Equity and Impact at YWCA San Antonio. An independent researcher as well as a current graduate student in applied demography at UTSA, she co-authored the "Status of...