During my visit in San Antonio, Tx., in May 2016, I had the privilege of visiting the first completely digital library that was ever open anywhere in the world. I had heard about it before, and I made concrete plans to visit it while in Texas. So, on May 25th, with the gracious help of my friend Rev. Silviu Neagu, we set on the way to look for it, after a visit at the Central Library in San Antonio, where we got the address we needed – 3505 Pleasanton Road, in Bexar [pronounced ‘bear’] County, a 1.7 million members, and rapidly growing.

As we were driving deeper into the South, the poorest area of San Antonio, my friend was becoming more and more skeptical. It seemed almost impossible to find a library in such a place. Did we have the wrong address? Yet, there it was: Bexar BiblioTech, hosted in a not very large former warehouse space. My heart started pounding. I had found it.

As we entered the building, we were greeted by the guard, and the head of this institution, Mr. JoseAngel Siller, who became our guide during this visit. He had, among other things, a master’s degree in philosophy of religion, and seemed to be a religious man, even if he did not make too much out of it.

One of the first things one sees on the wall after entering the building is the ‘tecolote’ [owl, in Spanish], the mascot and at the very same time the digital app of the library. As you scan it with your phone or table camera, you enter the virtual world of this technological miracle.

After being showed around for a quick tour, we were introduced to the history of this institution, opened on September 14, 2013, as a result of the visionary initiative of Judge Nelson Wolff, who intended to bridge through this the ‘digital divide’ that separates the majority of population from the poor in this community – where it is estimated that 70% of houses do not have internet connection and 100% of students receive free lunches.

The model for this new library system was provided by the Applied Engineering and Technology Library at the University of Texas in San Antonio (UTSA), the first bookless library on a university campus, opened there in March 2010.

As Laura Cole, the BiblioTech administrator,  writes in an article dedicated to this institution, BiblioTech has two objectives: ‘1) break down the barriers to reading and 2) provide service to disadvantaged populations. It offers not only digital books, but also ‘audio books, movies, music, television programs, magazines, graphic novels, databases, language learning programs and software education programs’. The Hidalgo Foundation, led by Tracy, Judge Nelson Wolff’s wife, is involved in the fundraising efforts for this initiative.

We were told that some people from other areas in San Antonio complained that the digital library was located here, of all places, but that was precisely the idea. To offer this kind of services to an area where about 80% of the population is Hispanic, quite poor, and many have limited access, if any, to the internet. It was conceived as a way of facilitating educational growth through access to the digital world for the poorest of the poor in that place. As a convert to holistic development, through my work with the poor in World Vision International, I could not be happier.

The cost for creating this space was about $2.7 million, funded from the county budget, since the structure already existed. Otherwise it would have costed close to $7m. One may rightly ask why would a digital library need such a space? Could it not be hosted completely in the digital cloud? However, as Laura Cole explains, ‘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.’ Thus, the 4,800 square-feet of the building ‘can offer classes, provide meeting space, school tutoring and children's reading programs… study rooms for group projects, a reading lounge, a cafe with light refreshments available and a community room for meetings and larger classes’. This is not ‘just a library’, but truly a community center dedicated to the personal development of its members. Children, women, unemployed men, even homeless people, or pastors and pastors in need of resources for their Sunday sermons, come and use the facilities.

Since it is a poor area, the library needs to also provide the technical means necessary for digital access. Thus, two years ago, writes Mrs. Cole, BiblioTech was providing ‘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…  reading accommodations, and adaptive technology for the visually impaired… 48 desktop computers, 40 iPads and 10 laptops available for internal circulation…  a children's area with 4 surface tables and interactive wall screens with learning software’. And things are continuously improving. Coming from Romania, a European Union country still in its early stages of development, after almost 50 years of communism, I have not seen such facilities even in the best funded institution.

There are many advantages to an all-digital library. Think about it. You don’t need to go through the hassle of cataloguing. As soon as a digital book is available, it is catalogued automatically by the system, being available immediately to the public. Then, the library does not need reinforced structures to carry the considerable weight of the books, does not need shelving and special temperature and humidity conditions.

Being digital, the e-book collection provided by BiblioTech can be accessed online, anybody living in Bexar County being entitled to have an account opened for them. To date, the library has over 85,000 subscribers.

Such an operation would not be possible without the cooperation and support of for-profit companies. The main partner of BiblioTech is the 3M company, which provides, besides other things, the software for the digital books and for new acquisitions. Besides 3M, there are many other companies and NGOs that contribute to this pioneering initiative.

What impressed me the most during this visit was the social vision of the staff in this institution. We talked with signor Siller about the way they encourage gender equality, about how they encourage girls’ education – since we all know that teaching girls is the surest way to encourage child education in families, which leads to progressive alleviation of poverty.

As a public library, BiblioTech has to ensure free access to all kinds of information, to all kinds of people. That does not mean, however, that there is control over that subscribers’ access. Adequate firewalls prevent access to already identified inappropriate sites. If, for instance, a child or teenager is trying to access pornographic materials, the administrators of the system interrupt temporarily their access, and have a conversation with the person involved. The same would be true if subscribers attempt to access dangerous websites. At the same time, they have to be careful not to be too intrusive and interfere with individual freedom. Yet, such incidents are incredible opportunities to teach kids values and self-restraint.

The road has not been easy, as with any pioneering initiatives. It is an advantage to being first, as you are free to innovate, since there are no established patters that limit your creativity. At the same time, one is bound to learn by trial and error. There is no other way. There were many lessons learned, as Mrs. Cole writes in a more recent article on BiblioTech. Staff realized soon enough that they were not really in competition with classic libraries and, in spite of initial resistance from classically trained librarians, were able to offer, by use of a ‘train of trainers’ program, supplementary digital facilities to those normally offered by physical libraries. Leaders of this experiment had to learn to resist the temptation to broaden the spectrum of services offered and lose the initial focus, of being a public library, be it in digital form.

This is, certainly, not the end of the story. A second 2,100 square-foot digital library, which bears the name of Dr. Ricardo Romo, President of UTSA, was opened in July 2015 in the Gardens at San Juan Square, in a new housing apartment setting on the West side of the county, and a third one will open in the Fall of 2016, on the East side.

All this is clearly just the beginning of a new era for libraries. If you are interested, you may read HERE more about the future of digital libraries.

Finally, I have to add that BiblioTech has been an inspiration for people from other parts of the world, for offering accessible information to the developing world. Besides Google’s efforts to provide satellite internet access in difficult areas, we can mention complementary efforts like WiderNet and eGranary, Library for All, and other similar initiatives which can extend the access of the poor to information, which is a prerequisite to any sustainable development and alleviation of poverty in our world.

Before we left, we have received a gift – a water bottle, a pen, and a coffee mug, in a green bag, all carrying the logo of the institution, in order for us to remember this place.

We were thoroughly impressed with everything we have seen at BiblioTech. The professionalism, the passion and the dedication of the staff made probably the strongest impression on us. With such amazing people, the sky is the limit to what they can accomplish.

Good bye, BiblioTech! I will certainly be back some day.

Dear readers, if you've enjoyed this, please come back. And if you ever travel through San Antonio, makes sure you visit BilioTech. You will always be welcome there, and you will surely enjoy it.

Published by Danut Manastireanu