A long, simmering dispute over Bexar County’s annual $3.78 million contribution to the City of San Antonio’s Public Library system became the subject of debate at Wednesday’s City Council B Session during a presentation of the proposed 2015 library system budget by Library Director Ramiro Salazar.

Since the much-heralded opening of Biblio Tech, the county’s all-digital library, in September 2013, County Judge Nelson Wolff has advocated for a change in the cost-sharing agreement that has been in effect since 1936. The county’s current contribution is used to defer the costs of library services used by 402,000 county residents at the Central Library and the system’s 26 branch libraries.

At issue is a philosophical disagreement over the future role and function of public libraries. Are they geographically distributed public venues providing goods and services, including physical books, to users? Or, should the library system be a provider of on-demand digital services wherever users and their devices happen to be?

The modern library system might have to be all those things. Branch libraries have become important community centers – public safe havens, especially in the inner city – that offer far more than quiet spaces and reading materials. They offer adult literacy and continuing education services. They offer access to free technology, such as computers, tablets and hi-speed Internet, that many individuals and families cannot afford.

And for the majority of library card holders who still want physical books, the library system carries all the legacy costs associated with buildings, staff and services.  In the City’s 2014 Community Survey, 96 percent of those surveyed said they want the library system’s budget expanded or maintained. Surprisingly, only six percent of the library users surveyed said they prefer e-books over traditional books.

(Read more: Survey: Citizens Like San Antonio…and Their City Services)

San Antonio Public Library Director Ramiro Salazar

“We think the county should pay more than $3.78 million,” Salazar told Council members. “We subsidize the operation.”

Salazar said 19 percent of the library system’s users are county residents. The city share of the library budget equates to $21 a user, Salazar said, while the county is paying only $9 per user. The county’s “fair share” should be $6.38 million, Salazar said. The 2015 proposed library system budget is $34.9 million. Since 2007, the county’s contribution has stayed steady at its current level, while city funding of the library system has increased from $21.5 million to $30 million annually.

“Worst case scenario … if we decided to cut our ties with the county and move on, those 400,000 people would no longer be served by the city’s library system,” Salazar said. “Some of those suburban cities in the county do not have their own libraries.”

District 6 Councilman Ray Lopez

District 6 Councilman Rey Lopez said any cut in services to the county residents would represent a serious setback in education efforts that San Antonio cannot afford. Too many of those library users, Lopez noted, have no alternative source of continuing education programs or access to technology.

“We’ve got to figure out an agreement,” Lopez said. Noting that most of the city’s growth is in the farther suburban reaches of the county, he added, “We can’t be in a position where we are not serving a growing part of the population.”

City Manager Sheryl Sculley was more pointed in her remarks to Council.

“They (the county) want the service. They don’t want to pay what they’re paying,” she said. “Quite candidly, this was a problem five years ago and we have that same problem now. They’d like to pay less and use that money for Biblio Tech.”

Privately, library system supporters have said an end to the 78-year city-county funding relationship could lead to closure of some branch libraries. No one said as much Wednesday, but Salazar did tell the Council, “If funding is cut, services will have to be cut.”

Various Council members vowed to lobby County Commissioners to continue supporting the funding arrangement. Noting that Seth Mitchell, assistant to the county manager, was in attendance to observe the library budget presentation and discussion, some Council members didn’t wait.

District 9 Councilman Joe Krier

“I salute Judge Wolff and Biblio Tech, but Mayor, I believe after the (Nov. 4 county judge) election you will have to visit with whoever is county judge,” District 9 Councilman Joe Krier said. “The overwhelming feedback that I get is that parents want to take their kids to libraries with real books. My message to my good friend Judge Wolff and to Seth Mitchell is that we need to be sensitive to what people want.”

The San Antonio Public Library system has continued to expand in recent years, and a new branch library known as the Encino Branch Library, located at 2515 E. Evans Rd., will open in Krier’s district next year. This Saturday at 11 a.m., city and library system officials are holding a public meeting at the future site to solicit citizen input on naming the new branch library.

A new branch library for District 2 is on the drawing board and scheduled to open in 2016. The 5.7-acre site on U.S. 87 near Foster Meadows Road will be more like a campus with a children’s playground and hiking trails intended to promote community recreation and wellness. Since 2007, the city has spent $55.6 million in capital funds on library facilities, and the 2012 bond provided $18.4 million of that sum for the new branch libraries in Districts 2 and 9 and $4 million in upgrades for the Central Library, which is now 20 years old.

Some library system supporters fear that county officials want to create their own competing library system, but Wolff says the county’s entry into providing digital library services is what motivated the city to begin its own digital transformation. Biblio Tech certainly has attracted substantial national and international press coverage. Wolff has immersed himself in digital library trends, and he didn’t hesitate to share his own strongly held views following the B Session.

“There is not another county in the state of Texas that is giving more than a few hundred thousand dollars to a city library system, so to bark at us is pretty ungrateful,” Wolff said. “A year ago the City suggested the county’s contribution to the library budget go from $3.7 to $6.7 million. That’s what triggered this debate.”

Here is a list of Texas municipal library systems and county contributions compiled by Wolff’s staff.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff

“I’ve told Sheryl (Sculley): ‘Go out to UTSA and see the new world,’ ” Wolff said. “About 75 percent of the UTSA library budget goes to technology, while nationwide, public libraries are spending only 5-10 percent on technology. We are giving the city $3.7 million this year, so we’re not hardline, but we want a different relationship going forward.  Our concept is to take the library to users. They don’t come to you. The world is changing.”

Salazar’s presentation described a library system that is serving both traditional and digital users. The City’s recent community survey showed a high level of satisfaction with the library system. If anything, residents seem to want more branch libraries, more programs, and more technology.

Last year, users logged 2.1 million hours accessing the Web on library computers, and more than 7.4 million books, videos and other items were checked out. There were 650,000 digital checkouts. Eleven percent of the 2015 proposed budget will be dedicated to new technology purchases.

Ignacio Albarracin, the library’s digital services manager, gave a presentation to Council on the system’s digital content strategy. Noting that 42 percent of all Americans now own a tablet and 58 percent own a smart phone, Albarracin said the three most requested services by San Antonio library users are digital books, movies and magazines.

He showed Council members the digital apps now being used by the library system and its users to access content. Patrons used the Overdrive app, widely used nationwide, to download 48,000 items just in the month of June. The app offers 40,000 book titles and is growing.

This new wallpaper can be seen at five locations around town. Users can digitally checkout books by scanning a QR code. Photo by Andrew Moore.

The Hoopla app allows library users to download or stream 10 movies or audio books a month. The Freegal video and music apps gives users free access to 7 million songs, including much of the Sony Music library.

Zinio, the “world’s largest newsstand,” gives library users free access to magazines.

“Download Zinio, cancel all your magazine subscriptions, and start reading for free,” Abarracin advised.

Library users who download the apps have what could be described as nonstop access to the 24/7 digital branch library. Albarracin acknowledged that the majority of library users are still unaware of the system’s digital offerings and he said Digital Library Wallpaper is being put up in public spaces in city neighborhoods to promote the new offerings (see photo above).

The San Antonio Public Library also is debuting Digital Library Kiosks in both terminals at the San Antonio International Airport that double as digital device battery charging stations and allow patrons to download content for their travels.

Salazar and his team are garnering their own good press for digital outreach, including this recent article in the national Library Journal and its Digital Shift publication.

*Featured/top image: San Antonio Central Library. Photo by Mitzi Moore.

Correction: This article originally stated that the “fair share” paid by the county should be $11 million. Salazar corrected himself to say $6.38 million. The Freegal app also has 7 million songs, not 700,000.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor and publisher of the Rivard Report.

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