The Digital Future of Libraries in San Antonio

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All media available on SAPL's OverDrive system can be available on your smartphone. Photo by Andrew Moore.

All media available on SAPL's OverDrive system can be available on your smartphone. Photo by Andrew Moore.

What at first glance might seem like a simple poster is, in reality, an invitation to browse all the digital resources offered by the San Antonio Public Library (SAPL). The digital library “wallpaper” (pictured below) allows library card holders to download any of the displayed books, movies, or magazines just by scanning the corresponding QR code and entering their library card number. A second code at the bottom of the section, allows users to browse through related works.

SAPL unveiled the new wallpaper last Thursday at the Central Library location, and currently have five other walls located around town. The goal is to increase awareness for the library’s growing digital collection.

“This is a project we have been working on the last few months to really create an opportunity for library users to learn more about the vast resources that your San Antonio Public Library offers in relation to our digital library,” SAPL Director Ramiro Salazar said. “There is so much that we offer and we really wanted to raise public awareness.”

QR Codes are placed on each book. Photo by Andrew Moore.

QR Codes are placed on each “book” on the wallpaper. Photo by Andrew Moore.

According to Salazar, the library originally got the idea from a YouTube video of similar wallpapers in Romania. The wallpapers are currently available inside the D.R. Semmes YMCA, the Bob Ross Senior Center, Alicia Treviño Lopez Senior Center, Haven for Hope, and the Briscoe Western Art Museum. The Library plans to install at least 15 more wallpapers in San Antonio in the near future at places like the airport and convention center. Library staff say that all locations should have wireless Internet available, so the downloads won’t eat users’ data plan. SAPL currently has more than 40,000 digital titles to choose from, all of which are viewable on mobile devices for free.

While scanning QR codes is easy, patrons will need a few additional apps to fully enjoy all the content: OverDrive for books, Zinio for magazines, and Freegal Music for music –all of which are available on Google play or the Apple App Store. A full list of apps which SAPL uses can be found on their website. The addition of the wallpapers, which SAPL calls the Digital Library Community Project, is part a bigger push to engage the public with the library’s digital resources.

“We struggled as libraries to let the public know that we have these. We thought we needed a tool to remind people, so it’s a strong marketing component,” SAPL Digital Services Manager Ignacio Albarracin said. “I think there are already a lot of people out there that have a smartphone and are good with it … but there are a lot of people who are just adopting the technology and they might be more willing to use these services if they learn about them through wallpapers like this.”

This new wallpaper can be seen at five locations around town. Photo by Andrew Moore.

This new wallpaper can be seen at five locations around town. Photo by Andrew Moore.

The move towards highlighting digital resources has several benefits for the local community, as the fastest adopters of mobile technology are actually San Antonio’s Hispanic population. According to a 2012 Hispanic Digital Consumer Report, Hispanics consume more mobile media than the general population. A more recent Pew Research Center study shows that Hispanics are more likely to access the Internet on a mobile device and less likely to use a desktop computer.  One reason is that smartphones are much cheaper. If a phone service provider can provide Internet on a mobile device, why pay more for a desktop computer and additional Internet connection?

This is especially true on the Southside near Pleasanton Road where BiblioTech is located. BiblioTech is a 100-percent-digital public library where patrons can check out books and e-readers as well as use the library’s iPads or Macbook Pro computers to surf the web. It was originally the brainchild of Bexar Country Judge Nelson Wolff, who wanted to break down the barriers to literacy in San Antonio.  According to BiblioTech Special Projects Coordinator Laura Cole, many residents in the area do not have Internet connections in their homes and must rely on mobile devices to access the Internet.

“You find people sitting out in the parking lot of Starbucks or McDonalds trying to get WiFi. That’s a shame,” Cole said.  “What BiblioTech does, it offers free WiFi and free Internet and technology for the benefit of those that don’t have that in their homes.

Helping residents get comfortable with the Internet and with using their smartphone to browse digital books, is an important goal for BiblioTech. For residents who lack a smartphone, BiblioTech also has 600 E-Ink readers that it lends out to the public along with 200 Nooks with children’s content. The cost of providing such resources is offset by the savings of going all-digital. According to Cole, BiblioTech was built for about a third of the cost of a regular library.

Love them or hate them, books do take up space. Photo by Andrew Moore.

Books take up considerable more space than digital libraries. Photo by Andrew Moore.

Additionally, mobile devices and e-readers allow the library to share its content with anyone, anywhere – even those unable walk through its doors do to a lack of transportation or a disability. By putting up digital wallpapers and partnering with community organizations, the San Antonio Public Library is working towards similar goals. In fact, Salazar says the library has a pilot program through which patrons can check out tablets and take them home. Haven for Hope and several senior centers have similar programs. For Cole, it’s a welcome change to libraries.

“I think what’s happening to libraries is very, very exciting. Really what it does is it literally puts the library in people’s hands. And it’s available to anybody,” Cole said. “It’s exciting to see people who may have never used the library before to be willing to explore it in that way.”

But if your phone puts an entire library in your hands, what does that mean for paper books? And if digital libraries are cheaper to build, does that mean traditional book-filled libraries are going extinct?

Neither Cole nor Wolff sees traditional libraries ditching their physical books any time soon, though there may be some downsizing or organizational changes.

“We (librarians) are going to have to look at the issue of space and a library system that is, and has always been, a not terribly efficient method of operating,” Cole said, “I like to read paper books, and I think a lot of people like to read paper books … but I think a digital library makes more sense in a lot of places.”

Salazar recently attended the Future of Libraries Survival Summit in Washington D.C., where many librarians debated this very question. He says that libraries must continue to evolve – and must continue to assess their use of space – but that the consensus at the summit was clear: As long as communities still want paper books, SAPL and libraries across the country will continue to provide them.

“We know from current experience, there is still by far a huge demand – like 6 to 1 – for print material. We also know that the demand for digital information has grown and there is a trend in that direction,” Salazar said. “There will be a continued demand for print. Folks have an affinity for print books. And for them, it’s not a matter of having one or the other. It’s a matter of having both.”

*Featured/top image: All media available on SAPL’s OverDrive system can be available on your smartphone. Photo by Andrew Moore.

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