April 25, 2016

Making an Impact on Digital Inclusion and Literacy

Digital inclusion can mean different things to different people. But for BiblioTech, the nation’s first all-digital public library, it is simply about doing what is necessary to provide digital access and resources to those who need it most.

The library offers services and branch locations that ultimately benefit a large and diverse part of the San Antonio population in a variety of ways. There are residents with digital literacy barriers, residents that may have access to public broadband, but lack devices, and unfortunately, residents without a connection or access to technology of any kind.

A Social and Economic Necessity

As the private sector, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations steadily move toward providing their services in a digital format, the need for everyone to function in a digital environment becomes increasingly fundamental. Broadband access will eventually, if it is not already, equate as a social and economic necessity required to thrive in the 21st century; similar to housing or employment. At some point in the near future, there is a real possibility that paying for your utilities, registering for a driver’s license, and applying for employment may all be services that can only be completed online. Digital literacy will at this point no longer be considered optional. Some people will only implement technology and the knowledge required to operate it into their daily routines when they see it as highly relevant to their lives.

BiblioTech’s creator, Bexar County Judge, Nelson Wolff, recognized this dilemma and its impact early on. In September 2013, the nation’s first all-digital public library opened to the 1.7 million residents of the City of San Antonio and Bexar County. It was named “BiblioTech,” a play on the Spanish word for library (biblioteca). The library branches are located within areas of the county where a deep divide exists between those who have access to technology and those who simply do not.

Bexar County is very diverse and BiblioTech, as a concept rooted in technology, helps bridge the digital divide within our community and provides services for everyone no matter what their background or circumstances. – Bexar County Judge Nelson T. Wolff

Most public libraries can be considered hybrid facilities, offering a percentage of their content and services digitally. This is not a new concept, according to the American Library Association. In 2011, two thirds of U.S. public libraries offered e-books, up from 38 percent only two years before. In 2014, Library Journal reported 95 percent of libraries carry e-book titles.

What Is a Digital Library?

So what makes a digital library so different? One reason is that its entire library collection consists of only e-books; there is not one paper book available in circulation. This modern-day concept offers several advantages. There are no large buildings needed to house collections. BiblioTech’s largest branch occupies only 4,800 square feet, compared to the 240,000 square-foot, six-story San Antonio Public Library. Cost is another; the central public library was a $50 million endeavor, and that was in 1995. BiblioTech’s cost was $2.4 million. The space required for shelves, books and storage just was not needed, dropping its costs from a traditional library down considerably. Its annual operating budget is just $1.2 million, with most technology needing replacement after three to five years.

Full-time staff includes only a branch manager, an assistant branch manager, a librarian, an outreach coordinator and network architect, the administrator, as well as 19 part-time technical assistants. Saying this, a digital library is not a replacement of the city public library; it should instead be designed to assist those patrons looking for a different public library experience.

Coordination is key. This year, BiblioTech and the San Antonio Public Library are coordinating efforts for long-range plans to create a federated library system, meaning that each library maintains local independence and has its own operating board.

Partnerships Matter

We have established a strong presence throughout Bexar County’s 14 school districts, where they have integrated services into the school libraries. Bexar County is also home to three military bases, struggling under constrained federal budgets. Our partnership with Joint Base San Antonio (Fort Sam Houston, Randolph and Lackland Air force Bases), allows the library access to base residents through donated reading devices and on-site kiosks. Another partnership includes M.A.T.C.H (Mothers and Their Children), which began in 1984 to give incarcerated mothers more opportunities to interact with their children. We now provide incarcerated mothers with e-readers and tablets so that they can study parenting books and read to their children during visits.

Putting Out the Welcome Mat

Welcoming new library users is an important component of a successful program. Every new visitor to our digital library is welcomed and offered a personal tour. If the visitor is a county resident, they are offered a library card at the end of the tour and additional one-on-one time with staff until they become familiar with the available technology. Out-of-town visitors are offered a guest pass so they can utilize the software and see how everything works. Everyone is shown how to download eBooks to their own readers or smart device or onto one of readers that can be checked out from the library. The bilingual staff also offers individualized technology assistance to seniors and anyone with special needs. That includes visually impaired patrons who can use voiceover accessibility devices and wireless Braille display on how to use adaptive equipment at BiblioTech.

The ability to navigate the internet is quickly becoming a required skill. The internet is used to pay bills, apply for jobs, apply for college, and fill out federal funding applications. Not teaching this necessary skill to library patrons would be doing them a great disservice. Since our staff does not have to spend a majority of their work hours handling traditional books, their main focus is on engaging our patrons. The branches have a personal and relaxed atmosphere that organically has created a help system where patrons just raise their hands and the staff come to them to answer questions. This is definitely something you do not see in traditional public libraries. – Ashley Eklof, BiblioTech Head Librarian

Because a digital library is fundamentally a “virtual” library, it is also available to homebound individuals or those in rural areas that do not have library branches nearby. Therefore, instead of going to a traditional “brick and mortar” public library, the digital library comes to them at home. The rising expense of technology itself has caused a “digital divide” between those who can afford it and those who cannot. Because of BiblioTech, Bexar County residents who would otherwise not have access to computers, iPads, and e-readers now have free access to onsite and circulated technology.

Alicia Hays
Alicia Hays works for BiblioTech, the nation’s first all-digital public library, as an Administrative Supervisor. She also assists with the Hidalgo Foundation, a nonprofit which operates exclusively for the charitable, literary, historical, and educational purpose of Bexar County, Texas. Alicia is a published author, a history and archaeology buff, and lives in San Antonio with her husband and 10-year old son.