Bexar County Reinvents the Library


A version of this story ran in the October 2013 issue.


When Henry Kissinger visited Mao Zedong in 1972, he was amazed to find books spilling out onto tables and the floor. “Manuscripts lined bookshelves along every wall,” Richard Nixon’s then-national security advisor recalled in his memoir White House Years. “Books covered the table and the floor; it looked more the retreat of a scholar than the audience room of the all-powerful leader of the world’s most populous nation.”

If Kissinger were to visit the newest library in San Antonio, he would probably be astounded to find it bare of any books. BiblioTech, which opened Sept. 14, is the world’s first all-electronic public library. The facility contains 48 desktop computer stations, and its patrons can borrow from a catalog of 10,000 titles that can be downloaded onto their own e-readers or one of 700 e-readers available—along with 10 laptops and 40 tablets—for loan.

BiblioTech is not the first such experiment in San Antonio. For more than three years, the Applied Engineering and Technology Library at the University of Texas at San Antonio has been doing business without books. But engineers presumably need data more than they need Dante, access to formulas and diagrams more than the text of Don Quixote. In 2002, the Santa Rosa Library in Tucson, Arizona, opened as an all-digital operation, but hard-copy volumes were later added by popular demand. So BiblioTech—whose name echoes not only the word for library in Spanish and other languages but also the Greek word, bibliotekai, for the most ancient of reading materials, papyrus scrolls—is the vanguard of public libraries. It is an institutional oxymoron: a bookless library.

Bexar County’s new bookless library opened on San Antonio’s South Side in September.
Bexar County’s new bookless library opened on San Antonio’s South Side in September.  Steven Kellman

Inspiration for the project came to Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff while reading Walter Isaacson’s biography (in hardcover) of Steve Jobs. Though he is himself a bibliophile with more than 1,000 first editions in his private collection, he imagined a library that would resemble an Apple store. That is a fair description of the finished BiblioTech. Muñoz & Company donated its architectural services, on land owned by the county. Because a digital library does not require rows and rows of shelves, BiblioTech is, at 4,989 square feet, more compact than an ordinary biblioteca. And Wolff estimates its price, $1.5 million, to be one-third the cost of an ordinary branch library. Staffing and upkeep should also be less expensive. BiblioTech is open seven days a week, but because anyone with a library card can access it from anywhere, anytime, it is effectively open 24/7. Because there is no limit to the number of times a given title can be downloaded, the library need not purchase duplicate copies. Nor does it have to repair or replace damaged or missing books.

Though it is by far the largest, San Antonio is one of about two dozen municipalities in Bexar County. San Antonio, where Wolff served as mayor from 1991 to 1995, and Bexar County, where he has been the presiding officer since 2001, maintain separate governments. The county, which did not have its own library system, had been transferring $3.8 million each year to the city’s library budget. Wolff’s vision of a bookless library allowed Bexar County to enter into the reading business independently of San Antonio, whose enchilada-red Central Library has been a downtown landmark since opening in 2005. Wolff told me he hopes to open additional branch libraries elsewhere in the county, but the inaugural BiblioTech is located at 3505 Pleasanton Road on San Antonio’s far South Side, in a neighborhood otherwise lacking in libraries and other services. Wolff notes that the neighborhood is 92 percent Hispanic and 88 percent economically disadvantaged. Because few of the area’s residents have Wi-Fi access at home, a free electronic library provides an opportunity to overcome the digital divide that separates the South Side of town from the more affluent North Side. Because it is not necessary to be physically present to make use of the library, it can serve incarcerated youth and overseas military. “We’ve got a chance to make a difference in people’s lives,” Wolff insists.

Bexar County’s new bookless library opened on San Antonio’s South Side in September.
Bexar County’s new bookless library opened on San Antonio’s South Side in September.  Steven Kellman

Invited to a private preview of BiblioTech, I made my way past a commercial strip chock-a-block with pawn shops, tattoo parlors and payday lenders. Not a bookstore in sight. The library is attractively designed, though its sterile interior resembles nothing so much as … an Apple store. Had it been an ordinary library, my eye and curiosity would have been caught by the covers of books and magazines. But all there is to see is a row of computer terminals. Laura Cole, the county’s special projects coordinator, Catarina Velásquez, BiblioTech’s branch manager, and Ashley Eklof, the head librarian, hastened to show me a screen displaying their inventory of e-books. A large percentage of these are contemporary titles, though it is presumably possible also to read Paradise Lost, On the Origin of Species and The Republic through BiblioTech’s connection to Project Gutenberg, which offers more than 40,000 older titles that have fallen into the public domain.

BiblioTech is not a research library, though it does offer access to several databases. And it does not archive manuscripts or rare editions, as do the area’s academic collections and the San Antonio Central Library. Public libraries are crucial for infecting children with the habit of reading, and when I asked whether the banks of computers would appeal to young patrons, I was ushered into an adjacent children’s room equipped with plush pastel seats, a room designed for storytelling and initiating novices into the mysteries of digital texts. Velásquez assured me that her own young children have been thrilled by the experience of pressing buttons and summoning words. Eklof, BiblioTech’s twentysomething head librarian, hopes, in addition, to stock video games, music and films, and to provide electronic delivery of general-interest magazines.

I grew up within easy bike-riding distance of a well-stocked branch library, and an important part of my early education in ideas was discovering current magazines—The Nation, The New Leader, New Republic, Partisan Review—displayed behind plastic covers in a cozy reading room. Some of my most memorable experiences in libraries around the world have been serendipitous discoveries made while wandering deep among the stacks and picking up a volume I had never heard of. Unless they already know to search for it among the plethora of electronic offerings, BiblioTech patrons might remain ignorant of the very existence of The Texas Observer, for instance.

BiblioTech patrons can stretch their ken by clicking, but that is not the same as holding a printed book and turning its paper pages. My copy of Anna Karenina has heft; when I place a bookmark on page 350, I feel in my fingers how far I have come and how far I have yet to go. But with an electronic version of Tolstoy’s novel, blocks of text appear and then, as soon as I have processed them, vanish into the ether. If a book lacks substance, what will that mean for the ideas it conveys?

Examining BiblioTech in 2013 feels a bit like visiting the workshop of Johannes Gutenberg in 1439, when, through the invention of movable type, he was beginning to transform the way we read and think. BiblioTech will not long remain the only library of its kind. Eklof notes that an official from Hong Kong has scheduled a visit. And it seems likely that bookless libraries will become as commonplace as unleaded gas. “If we can put a man on the moon and sequence the human genome, we should be able to devise something close to a universal digital public library,” declares philosopher Peter Singer. Even the hallowed New York Public Library has unveiled a controversial plan to put much of its vast collection into storage.

Like tuition-free schools, public libraries have been essential to the American dream of a free and enlightened citizenry. Libraries are crucial engines of innovation. They also need to be stewards of our cultural heritage. In a democratic society, they must be accessible to all. But few libraries can be all things to all people. As versions of BiblioTech proliferate, we will still need places that preserve printed books and even manuscripts. There is evidence that Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons coexisted and even interbred for thousands of years. But there is also evidence that the newer species wiped out the old.

Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and was awarded the NBCC’s 2007 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.