A Maverick Library

Peter Brantley -- January 21st, 2013

Judge Nelson WolffSan Antonio, Texas has a history of supporting mavericks; in fact, the word originates from a signer of Texas Independence, Samuel Maverick, whose grandson, Maury, also held true to his surname. Now that Bexar (pronounced “Bear”) County, San Antonio’s home, is committed to building a new public library, BiblioTech, that will be devoid of all printed books, County Judge Nelson W. Wolff stands to follow in hallowed South Texas footsteps. Judge Wolff is a progressive politician who was also the founder of Sun Harvest Farms, a natural foods grocery store chain. As an elected County official, the Judge is something of an overlord along with the County Commission over many essential County-wide functions and services, including taxes and infrastructure investments.

“BiblioTech,” a play on the Spanish word for library, biblioteca, will open up on the south side of the county as a test of the proposition that providing a mix of services centered on Internet access and access to e-books is a cost effective strategy for providing information resources and library services to far-suburban and rural communities. Although the city has been providing library services to the county, it recently upped the tab from $3.7MM to $6.7MM – the highest city-county bill in the nation. As growth in unincorporated areas outside the city limits continues, the city has found it increasingly expensive to provide library services to areas without much in the way of their own tax base.

BiblioTech fits into Judge Wolff’s pattern of encouraging the long-term development of San Antonio. The vision anticipates a multi-location facility providing community information needs, with the first site serving as a model; it would be open into evening hours, available to registered County residents, and would provide access to up to an anticipated 10,000 ebook titles, supported with a pool of up to 100 e-readers. On January 15, 2013 the County gave its permission to release an RFP for an e-reader provider, a RFQ for an architect to remodel some existing underutilized County space, initial budgetary capital and operations (for computers and ebooks, among other things), and the creation of an advisory board.

Taking advantage of a visit to San Antonio, I was able to sit down with the Judge to talk about this new initiative and its longer term goals. In a wide ranging interview that included senior staff, I was impressed with his awareness of the overall public library environment. Partly inspired from the local UTSA engineering library, which went bookless in 2010, and Stanford’s engineering library, Wolff is alert to the dramatic shifts in digital access. I raised the most obvious objection from other library directors – that no digital library can be comprehensive today because of publisher reluctance to license their books – and he readily acknowledged that not all literature could be presented to county residents through an ebook platform. Yet, he was hopeful that forward-looking demonstrations of community libraries such as BiblioTech would encourage publishers to enlarge their offerings, reaching readers that lacked any bookstore.

Judge Wolff sees BiblioTech as not just a model for Bexar County, but far beyond it. With great enthusiasm, the County’s staff is rapidly gathering information about e-book vendors and licensing models; educating itself about national initiatives such as ReadersFirst; and has contacted innovative libraries ranging from New York Public to Chattanooga. BiblioTech will have a strong children’s area, with dedicated technology support and a concentration on children’s e-literature. More broadly, as expected from a leader long engaged in State and local politics, Wolff is beginning to consider what mix of community information needs can be presented through its facility; citizen education is considered an important element. And, perhaps because of its newness and innocence, it seems everyone has leapt to provide assistance. Even praise on the layout, size, and staffing of Apple stores has brought offers of help from unexpected places.

The serious grappling with what future libraries will embrace extends well beyond how they will address books. The BiblioTech team is also considering digital access to music and movies. Although the Judge’s staff had little exposure to maker spaces and some of the other forms of technology engagement and education, they were eager to learn about the range of opportunities. Wolff has been instrumental in bringing large concerns into San Antonio, such as Toyota’s newest truck manufacturing facility – on the same side of the city as BiblioTech – and has formed strong ties to Rackspace, a native San Antonio startup. and powerful cloud storage and computing provider. The opportunity to reshape libraries in San Antonio is significant, and with it there is an opportunity to inform what libraries look like across the globe.

2 thoughts on “A Maverick Library

  1. Shannon Acedo

    “I raised the most obvious objection from other library directors – that no digital library can be comprehensive today because of publisher reluctance to license their books – and he readily acknowledged that not all literature could be presented to county residents through an ebook platform. ” Why is this acceptable? Which 10,000 ebooks are available? Are they the same 10,000 available through Smashwords that the Douglas County Public Library just bought? What will patrons think when they find out that very few best sellers or populular fiction titles are available? There also seems to be no worries about questionable legality of loaning out ereaders with titles loaded on them. The headlines of Bookless Library is so exciting that the details don’t seem to matter much.

  2. Michael Henry Starks

    How will residents who cannot own or use computers and smartphones be able to access the library’s digital content? That’s a question I haven’t seen answered in any coverage of Bexar County’s plans for its new library.

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