Nelson Wolff has written another book. Yes, that Nelson Wolff, the Bexar County Judge recently elected to his fourth term in office, the same Nelson Wolff who served as mayor of San Antonio from 1991 until 1995, concluding his two terms at City Hall with the grand opening of the San Antonio Central Library.
It might surprise readers new to San Antonio or too young to remember chapters in Wolff’s earlier political career, but Wolff the elected official and politician has always been the Wolff the frustrated baseball player and author. He’s pursued his other loves with the same passion he has brought to public service. Now, at age 74, he’s written his fifth book, and the third one that revolves around San Antonio politics and urban life.
Don’t look for “Bexar BiblioTech: The Evolution Of The Country’s First All-Digital Library” in your local bookstore. Unlike Wolff’s other books, “Bexar Bibliotech” is an e-book. It costs $2.99 plus tax on Amazon, and all proceeds benefit the Hidalgo Foundation, the nonprofit founded in 2001 by Tracy Wolff, Nelson’s wife, who has raised millions of dollars over the years for restoration of the historic county courthouse and other community endeavors, including now the funding of BiblioTech libraries and satellites throughout the county.
It’s not that Wolff couldn’t find a traditional publisher for his newest book that any armchair follower of San Antonio history or politics should read. He’s making a point here in defense of building an all-digital library system in Bexar County that both complements and competes with the City’s public library system. It’s a pursuit that is not without controversy, which readers can catch up in past Rivard Report stories.
Today, county, city and library system representatives are sitting around the table and figuring out ways to work together.
“If the government were more like the private sector, old traditional book libraries would end up like bookstores,” Wolff said in an interview. “Neighborhood libraries provide a lot of important community services, and book collections are certainly are still vital. The challenge now is how you balance the vast collections of books found in libraries with e-books. So far, public libraries haven’t fully adjusted to that.
“We’re spending, on average, 5% of the budget on technology in public libraries in San Antonio and elsewhere, while UTSA and other universities are spending 75% on technology at academic libraries,” Wolff said. “Today we are looking at a partnership with the San Antonio Public Library. Competition is not bad, either. We can do both: compete and partner. We are in the middle of discussions right now.”
By now, the establishment of the first BiblioTech, formerly known as the Bexar County Digital Library, on the city’s Southside in 2013 is a familiar story. Since its opening, two new BiblioTechs have been planned, one that will open in the San Juan Homes on the Westside this year, and one that will open on the city’s Eastside in 2016 in or near the former Wheatley Courts housing project. Smaller satellite digital libraries, where inner city residents of all ages are provided with free tablets and e-readers loaded with their choice of reading material, have been opened everywhere from the Wounded Warriors facility at Brooke Army Medical Center at Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston to school libraries and the county courthouse.
“Branch libraries are wonderful, essential components to every community, but a new branch library costs $7-8 million or more,” Wolff said. “By comparison, an all-digital library is very affordable and you’re putting the same technology in the hands of kids and their parents in the housing projects that people are using in the wealthiest parts of the city. Since we opened the first BiblioTech we have received non-stop calls, and people all say the same the thing: ‘We want one in our neighborhood.’ A great city cannot have too many libraries or community learning centers.”
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Nelson and Tracy Wolff are known among other local book collectors for their own extensive library of first editions and collectible books, so I asked Wolff if he was practicing what he preaches, even as I acknowledged difficulty paring down the size of my home library over the years as technology has made e-books a part of my daily life. It was, admittedly, a “pot calling the kettle black” question.
“Every book I read now is electronic, it’s just too damn easy to do, and then I buy a copy of the first edition for my home library,” Wolff said, who writes in his new book that he still ends every day with a tablet propped up on his pillow for a little bedtime reading.
I was expecting to read a spirited defense of BiblioTech, and there is certainly that in the book, but there is much more and that’s what makes it a good book. What attracted me the most is the book’s broad scope, beginning with a history of public libraries in San Antonio, and how the system was devalued and underfunded starting in the 1960s with the opening of the former Central Library, and the politics surrounding the push for what would become the present-day “enchilada red” Central Library, designed by celebrated Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta, along with Johnson Dempsey & Associates and San Antonio Architect Davis Sprinkle.
What’s interesting about Wolff’s telling of the contemporary history of San Antonio’s library system is how he offers a parallel tracking of the development of the Internet, personal computers, email, and, finally, the age of smart phone, tablets and e-books. In all instances, local government trails the private sector and seems confounded by the startup and tech economy and its cyclical disruptions of the market.
Wolff may be 74, but he has adapted to each new wave of technology in ways other local officeholders have been unable to do. This could be because he and other family members started, built and eventually sold two profitable businesses: a building supply store chain, and later, Sun Harvest, the state’s first organic and healthy foods grocery chain. Taking risks and adapting to change are not unfamiliar to Wolff.
“The private sector adapts because it has to,” Wolff said. “Government doesn’t have to move as fast, though it should. It can sit on the sidelines, but when government reacts to change slowly it can be costly. Uber (and Lyft) rideshare is a good example of new technology moving in and instantly improving service in our city. When you resist such change rather than embrace it, you are going to suffer the consequences. I hear people say all the time the easiest thing to do when they are out drinking is call Uber and avoid having an accident or getting stopped. Officeholders need to listen to that message.”
For San Antonio’s growing Millennial population and for readers of all generations, it’s worth noting that the physical age of any given officeholder is less important than that individual’s grasp of how technology is transforming and improving the world around us, and how we can support that change to build a more competitive city on the rise, or how resisting change will have just the opposite effect.
It will only cost you $2.99 to read more of what Wolff has to say about San Antonio.
*Featured/top image: Judge Nelson Wolff poses for a photo in a library, you won’t find his new book in these racks. Courtesy photo.
Read more about and by Judge Nelson Wolff in our Rivard Report archive.