Shout-out to Ben Steck for mentioning BiblioTech in a discussion board post! Somehow (probably due to my ignorance of the public library world), I knew barely any details about this fascinating project. If you’re in the same boat, buckle up!
(Boats can have seat belts, right?)
BiblioTech is the first fully digital public library in the United States. Laura Cole, BiblioTech’s founding director, described its revolutionary start in 2013 in Bexar County, Texas. The concept grew out of a need to increase library access for a geographically sprawling population, and it was the brainchild of a local judge trying to maximize resources (Cole, 2017, p. 245). Cole pointed out that BiblioTech was only successful because of its timing, implying that this type of solution is certainly not appropriate for every context: “Past efforts had failed, in part, because the public simply was not ready. In the fast-paced world of technology, however, even three or four years can mean the difference between universal product acceptance and product rejection; between success and failure” (p. 246).
BiblioTech certainly sounds like a pioneering success. If your first thought was, like mine, abject horror at the idea of replacing the plethora of community services provided by public libraries with an online repository – fear not! BiblioTech still has physical branch libraries. They deliver the common spaces, computers, free Wi-Fi, and all-important people. The branches even check out e-readers, with adaptive technology for the blind and visually impaired. But the buildings can be smaller because they do not house physical collections. There seem to be two indispensable goals of these physical spaces as complements to the digital library collection: to help bridge the “digital divide” by providing technology access in under-resourced neighborhoods; and to build civil society through education. As Cole summarized, “Technology is embedded in every function of our lives, but education is the key to making it work” (p. 246).
Knowing only this much – the idea of a digital library with and without walls – was already cool enough. But BiblioTech’s educational mission is, in my opinion, its most impressive aspect. Due to the inherent “portability” of this digital public library model, BiblioTech has been able to embed materials, services, and outreach in spaces where they can reach the most vulnerable. For example, the library runs “Mothers and Their Children (MATCH),” a program for incarcerated mothers to facilitate reading, and a training program with technology skills certifications for adults on probation. They also have partnerships, and in some cases satellite “branches” (such as kiosks and service desks), with local school districts, military bases, public transportation, and the health system. A large new branch building just opened this year near the East Meadows Housing Development (Scherer, 2018).
How has this library system grown? Cole’s managerial approach is, in her words, “aggressive” (p. 250). “We are shameless self-promoters” (Cole, 2017, p. 251), she said of her team. Cole also encourages trial and error, noting that “If I have learned nothing else over the past four years, it is that the occasional failure is not a bad thing” (p. 258). The strength of her leadership is clear, and I wonder how important this style of innovation and in-your-face outreach has been to the success of this model.
The story of BiblioTech has me thinking about the power of bringing resources and education directly to people, wherever they need it. It also left me dreaming about how much more powerful this digital library model could be if there were widespread Open Access. But the loudest thoughts that stuck with me after reading Cole’s article were about the identity of a “library.” This was the perfect capstone to our discussions of digital libraries throughout the semester, because this class has greatly expanded my notion of what a “digital library” can be. The entire concept of BiblioTech has further exploded my very notion of a “library.” Yet that word has, in no way, been lost or rendered meaningless. Quite the opposite! The identity of a library as a “library” remains crucial.
In what felt like a surprisingly deemphasized thought, Cole noted in her conclusion that “Temptations to divert our focus from library to ‘technology center’ have been many” (p. 258). She failed to elaborate, but I hear an implication that a diversion from being a “library” would damage BiblioTech’s very purpose. So what makes it, or any other library, continue to be a library? I think, as so many LIS classes rightly emphasize, a values-driven approach to meeting user needs and enhancing their experiences of the world sits at the core of that identity. Technology will continue to change the appearance and logistics of our work, but the “library” will remain.
Cole, Laura. (2017). BiblioTech: Closing the gap between traditional and digital literacy. Public Library Quarterly 36(3), 244-258.
Scherer, J. (2018, April 19). New BiblioTech opens on East Side, aims to bridge digital divide. San Antonio Express-News. Retrieved from https://www.expressnews.com/news/local/politics/article/New-BiblioTech-opens-on-East-Side-aims-to-bridge-12849238.php