BiblioTech: The All-Digital Public Library

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


Privacy in the Digital Library

The “Luddites Unite!” postcard in my office is just one sign that I have no aspirations of being a systems librarian. Information technology is neither my passion nor my area of expertise. Yet despite a tech-wary personality – or, perhaps, precisely because of it! – I am fascinated by digital privacy issues. Ok, maybe “fascinated” isn’t quite the right descriptor; at times, I’m downright paranoid.

But maybe that’s not such a bad thing for a librarian. As we explore issues related to digital libraries, legal and ethical questions abound. Librarians are professionally bound to protect user privacy whenever possible, but I know far more about standards of practice as an employee (e.g., don’t share user information) than about the “behind-the-scenes” data collection in which most of us take part. This means that while I may be able to use the infrastructure created for a digital library, I don’t know everything that it’s doing. So I started to wonder: if I set up a digital library using an existing platform, am I unwittingly asking users to surrender personal information? Are there potential privacy concerns for digital library users?

According to Affonso and Sant’Ana (2018), the answer is yes. Their recent study analyzed what kinds of data users shared when visiting digital libraries—both actively, as when they entered keywords into a search box, and unknowingly, as when the site collected their IP addresses. Affonso and Sant’Ana used the National Digital Libraries across South America as their study sample. Their technical process for determining data movement was slightly over my head, but I learned a wonderful new term: “packet sniffer.” One of their methods for tracking data was to use free software called Wireshark, a packet sniffer that “captures and analyzes network packets in real time, displaying in detail the data that is circulating in the computer network” (Affonso & Sant’Ana, 2018, p. 174)

Admittedly, their conclusion was clearer to me than the details of their method. Affonso and Sant’Ana (2018) argued that “data processed in the [digital library] networks can result in the identification of the individual [user]. Other aspects can also be of concern, such as the possible correlation of the data with other databases, forming user profiles” (p. 181). In other words, data that might seem meaningless in isolation “can be linked to new contexts, and it becomes difficult to get a sense of when privacy has been violated” (Affonso & Sant’Ana, 2018, p. 173). Unfortunately, the researchers did not offer any easy solutions after these gloomy words. We cannot change every digital library system overnight, and perhaps we can never ensure privacy anyway—especially if our users demand the customization that has become standard in web services but relies on data collection.

Our best option, at the moment, is transparency. “Digital environments should in their content make explicit not only the collection of data that are easily noticeable to the user but also the data that are present in the flow of communication through computer networks” (Affonso & Sant’Ana, 2018, p. 179). In other words, we must learn the back-end details of our digital library infrastructures and clearly inform users about any information they may be forced to share.

At least we can take our cue from the strategies and policies employed by other digital libraries. In 2016, both CLIR (Council on Library and Information Resources) and the DLF (Digital Library Federation) adopted the Library Freedom Project’s “Library Digital Privacy Pledge.” This pledge involved using HTTPS as a first step toward better data encryption and user protections. Additionally, the DLF has an extensive policy detailing the type of information collected from users. The ALA also offers a toolkit for writing privacy policies and conducting a privacy audit.

As data becomes an increasingly valuable commodity, we have a lot of work to do to protect our users. I’m guessing that privacy will only become an even bigger issue throughout our library careers. I’ve certainly realized that I need to know more about every side of the problem, from the ethical to the technical.



Affonso, E. P., & Sant’Ana, R.C. G. (2018). Privacy awareness issues in user data collection by digital libraries. IFLA Journal 44(3), 170-182. Retrieved from

CLIR and DLF sign library digital privacy pledge. (2016). CLIR Issues 112, 1. Retrieved from

Use It or Lose It? The Case of “Fair Use”

About two years ago, I accepted a job that included responsibility for Open Education programs. I didn’t realize at the time how much I, a teacher-librarian with no legal experience, would suddenly have to learn about copyright law. Or, as I like to call it, “everyone’s favorite topic!” (Right??) In short, I would not have succeeded in that position without lots of research and, above all, a wonderful mentor. Which brings me to the topic of this post: the “fair use” clause in U.S. copyright law.

As an educator, I was somewhat familiar with fair use – mainly in the context of classroom copies. But the more I learned about copyright restrictions, even in the educational realm, the more scared I was. Not so much in my personal practice, though I certainly gained a new perspective on how often I was skating too close to the legal line. But in my role as a librarian who was now in charge of educating others about their rights, I was increasingly scared to suggest any risks. I fell back on the (accurate and professionally responsible) disclaimer that “I cannot provide legal advice!” Unsurprisingly, this answer was never really satisfactory to anyone, including me. Moreover, I was growing concerned about my advice: Was I discouraging instructors to use materials that best fit their needs? Was I making students feel like they had no chance of getting past YouTube enforcers that might pounce on their remixed audio-visual creations? I was, of course, encouraging the use of openly licensed media and championing Creative Commons licensing. But the amount of media protected by copyright still vastly outweighs Open materials. We need more options. The instructors and students with whom I was working certainly needed more options.

And then my mentor stepped in with a few wise words. He argued that we should encourage people to take advantage of fair use, because the more we use it, the more power it has. In other words, if we constantly advise the “safer” path and discourage any “risk-taking” when it comes to copyright law, we may end up losing fair use protections. After all, the history of copyright law is one of constantly increasing protections for corporate producers. As librarians with a professional responsibility to increase access to information, what can we do to push the law in the other direction?

Gretchen McCord, a lawyer and former reference librarian, wrote a 2013 essay on fair use that provides a breakdown of the Google Books court case, The Authors Guild v. Google. I have never read a clearer explanation of how the courts considered each factor of fair use in order to reach a favorable ruling for the Google Books project. Simply understanding this case better improved my own comfort with fair use—and I wonder if teaching others about it could have a similar effect. From the start, McCord emphasizes the constitutional purpose of copyright law: it “is not to protect or reward creators of copyrightable works, but to promote the creation of new works” (p. 6). Just like my mentor, she goes on to imply that the more we use and test and prove the value of fair use, the more chance we have of keeping it “alive and well.”

The challenge of fair use is that determining whether or not it applies is always case-by-case. There are many resources to assist with fair use assessments, such as Columbia’s checklist: . But, of course, there is always a caveat: “There is no magic formula” (Columbia University Libraries, 2018), and the user is responsible for any legal infringement, regardless of intent. These realities once made me pause when recommending a fair use assessment.

No longer!

Regardless of media format and copyright status, I am professionally determined to encourage fair use assessments whenever a work might be used for educational or transformative purposes (such as digital libraries!). As librarians, I strongly believe that it is our responsibility to learn about copyright law not only to help users avoid infringement, but also to exercise our right to fair use, lest those muscles atrophy.




Columbia University Libraries. (2018). Fair use checklist. Columbia Copyright Advisory Services. Retrieved from


McCord, Gretchen. (2013). Fair use is alive and well…for the time being. Texas Library Journal, 89(4), 6-7.