The second BiblioTech branch, located in the Gardens of San Juan at 2003 S. Zarzamora, is the first digital library in the country to be developed within a housing project. Photo by Lea Thompson.

Ask any librarian: libraries are changing. Years of state budget cuts in an increasingly digital world have hit libraries hard, but the need for the institution remains. BiblioTech, the first all-digital library in the country, could be the answer to the shrinking financial resources and growing need for educational resources in Texas.

Since BiblioTech South opened in Bexar County in 2013, the library has attracted more than 180,000 visitors, registered more than 65,000 patrons and has become an international model for libraries in the 21st century.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff developed the idea for BiblioTech in 2012, envisioning a library that would provide educational resources while engaging generations of readers in Bexar County. His wife Tracy, the founder and President of The Hidalgo Foundation of Bexar County, helped raise the funds needed for digital books and equipment for the Southside branch.

In a digital library, patrons will find modern Apple computers instead of bookcases, e-readers instead of paperbacks and a storytime that is no longer a passive activity. Every aspect of the library is competing with a world of apps and social media, seeking to engage and hold the attention of each individual.

BiblioTech will make history again on July 25  with the opening of a second branch, the Dr. Ricardo Romo BiblioTech, the country’s first digital library branch located within a housing project.

County Judge Nelson Wolff talks with an attendee. Photo by Scott Ball.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. File photo by Scott Ball.

“After the first branch opened, SAHA approached us and asked if we’d be interested in doing a library in one of their housing projects,” Judge Wolff said. “The San Juan Gardens is a great area, it’s right next to a bus stop and with a walkable street. It’s perfect for the area.”

Tracy has already raised $160,000 for the new Westside branch, with the goal of raising $250,000 which will purchase 10,000 e-books. Thanks to the partnership, SAHA will lease the building to Bexar County for $1 each year.

“We are working with the schools in the district to match their reading needs for each grade level,” Tracy said. “If the class is assigned to read a book like ‘Moby Dick’ and the library only has one copy available for checkout with a two-week limit, that means a lot of kids are going to be left out.”

BiblioTech has already partnered with 14 school districts and 58 schools to reach students, and that reach is expected to grow with each year and additional location. The e-readers can be adjusted to match the individual’s reading levels and goals based on school reading standards.

Tracy is also working to bring companies like Rackspace to BiblioTech, which will soon offer patrons the robotics and programming classes needed as prerequisites for the Open Cloud Academy. Visitors can also find free workshops for coding, podcasts, and music theory using the digital technology resources available at the branch locations.

L to R: BiblioTech staff members Steven Prado, Jesse Garcia and Catarina Velasquez demonstrate the new library’s interactive touchscreen tables, which will provide research and educational tools to children in the community. Photo by Lea Thompson.
L to R: BiblioTech staff members Steven Prado, Jesse Garcia and Catarina Velasquez demonstrate the new library’s interactive touchscreen tables, which will provide research and educational tools to children in the community. Photo by Lea Thompson.

In an area where households are more likely to have cell phones than tablets or home desktops, reading and research options can be limited. According to BiblioTech’s research, 24% of the Westside population has not achieved a ninth grade education. That number includes children and adults who never finished school.

Tracy Wolff speaks after her husband, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff accepts his win on election day. Photo by Scott Ball.
Tracy Wolff. File photo by Scott Ball.

“If they don’t become educated, they’ll always be behind,” Tracy added. “This is the perfect combination of the STEM focus happening in our schools and literacy efforts, which are still needed.”

The Westside location offers a study room available for reservations, a room of computers which can be reserved an hour at a time and a children’s area which will allow for individual and group learning.

The children’s area includes a 70 inch screen that uses ActivInspire, which acts as a modern-day projector, allowing staff to present curriculum and slideshows covering a wide range of topics, including the historic Missions of San Antonio.

While the original location has space for multiple interactive tables with several educational apps and games, BiblioTech West has one interactive table with hundreds of games that teach everything from music, to matching, to math and puzzles, adjusting for grade levels and age.

BiblioTech West staff members will also use Classflow to ask students questions and receive answers in real-time. Children can follow along with the presenter while answering questions on their individual tablets.

“With the library resources, we want kids to be able to experience all this great technology, but also be able to take it home with them,” said Catarina Velasquez, the community relations liaison for BiblioTech. “We’re giving them these devices to read on at the household so this kind of information access is normal and expected.”

Patrons are encouraged to register for computer training sessions, where staff can help them make the most of their time on the computer. Visitors are also encouraged to bring their own personal devices to make the check-out process easier.

Although the Dr. Ricardo Romo BiblioTech is almost half the size of the original branch, the library expects to serve hundreds of patrons each day.

UTSA President Ricardo Romo, Ph.D., and photographer. Photo by Al Rendon.
UTSA President Ricardo Romo, Ph.D. Photo by Al Rendon.

UTSA President Dr. Romo has been a major advocate of BiblioTech, and helped UTSA open the first completely bookless college library in 2010. The new branch’s name honors the Westside native, who grew up just minutes away from the new library.

“I’m very honored to accept this recognition on behalf of the staff and individuals who have created this innovative system for learning,” Romo said. “It’s really come full circle. I lived on the Westside, and got my first big start as a library assistant in the seventh grade. It moved me and changed me to get more involved.”

“It helped me mature as a young learner, and brought me to whole new worlds that I didn’t know existed before,” Romo said. “Reading is extremely important, and the more people we can touch and inspire, the better.”

BiblioTech has expanded their reading programs to reach the Juvenile Detention Center, incarcerated mothers and military bases throughout San Antonio. Pending a Memorandum of Understanding, BiblioTech will provide reading resources to the Joint Bases in San Antonio, where libraries are expected to be defunded and closed later this year. A third BiblioTech location is also slated to open in Eastside San Antonio within the new Wheatley Courts in 2016.

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The new BiblioTech will host its grand opening on Saturday, July 25, at the Gardens of San Juan Square. Members from the Commissioner’s Court, San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) officials and former Mayor Julián Castro will be present for the ribbon-cutting. Community members are invited to sign up for a BiblioTech card, tour the building and enjoy family-friendly activities.

Library staff hopes the technology and programs will inspire a new generation to take an interest in reading and learning.

“The fact is that traditional libraries are disappearing,” said Laura Cole, the BiblioTech Manager. “We’re not looking to replace traditional libraries and books, because there is no replacement, but at the end of the day, we need to go wherever the people are. In the end, information is always going to win.”

*Featured/top image: The second BiblioTech branch, located in the Gardens of San Juan at 2003 S. Zarzamora, is the first digital library in the country to be developed within a housing project. Photo by Lea Thompson.

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Lea Thompson

Lea Thompson is a Texas native who has lived in Houston, Austin and San Antonio. She enjoys exploring new food and culture events. Follow her adventures on Instagram, Twitter or Culture Spoon.