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San Antonio moves its library into the future, and leaves books behind

Paco Garcia is reflected on computer screens as he uses a computer at BiblioTech, a first of its kind digital public library, on Sept. 16, 2013, in San Antonio, Texas. BiblioTech is a play on the Spanish word for library which is "biblioteca."
Paco Garcia is reflected on computer screens as he uses a computer at BiblioTech, a first of its kind digital public library, on Sept. 16, 2013, in San Antonio, Texas. BiblioTech is a play on the Spanish word for library which is "biblioteca." AP Photo/Eric Gay

WASHINGTON — A library without books may once have been considered unthinkable. But the new public library on San Antonio’s south side has gone completely book-free.

Six months ago, BiblioTech in south central Texas became the nation’s first totally digital public library. The name plays off the word “biblioteca,” which is Spanish for library.

The virtual library lets Bexar County readers check out up to five books at a time over the Internet on their devices from home or wherever they are. U.S. soldiers serving overseas can even download the latest bestseller from Afghanistan.

No computer? No problem.

Local residents can check out tablets or e-readers for free, or they can use the library’s 48 iMac desktop computers. Children can take home any of the 200 Nook readers pre-loaded with 150 books appropriate for their age.

A Vast "Digital Commons"

In Washington, D.C., the downtown Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library cleared the shelves in one wing last June to open a vast, bookless area. The library is calling it “Digital Commons,” and it's part computer lab, part design center and part reading lounge.

The bound book has held sway for 500 years and doesn't look like it’s going away anytime soon. But the digital age, which has crept into libraries through new technology, is slowly taking over.

A number of ambitious national and international digital efforts are underway. They focus on making records, manuscripts and books available online. The Digital Public Library of America and the Library of Congress-supported World Digital Library are making literary treasures, such as an early 16th-century Gospel manuscript from Ethiopia, more accessible. The Digital World Library just reached 10,000 entries this past week.

“This project is of enormous benefit to students, teachers, scholars and lifelong learners,” said James H. Billington. He is with the national Library of Congress in Washington. Billington added he was pleased to see that it continues to grow.

At the MLK library, there’s a giant touch screen used for teaching classes and a 3-D printer, which makes three-dimensional objects. On a recent afternoon, the printer was in the process of building a small basket. There’s also a sound studio, a new book printer machine that will print and bind a book, and small work areas for people who need space for new business. In the children's section, children can read and play on a touch-screen table. There’s even a row of express computers that visitors, no library card needed, can use for 15 minutes.

At North Carolina State University’s new James B. Hunt Jr. Library in Raleigh, the 1.5 million books are stored underground. That leaves lots of space for research and study groups, and students can check out books from a unique robot-driven system, known as a bookBot, that delivers books in five minutes or less.

“There are a lot of libraries that are shifting that way,” said Barbara Stripling, president of the American Library Association. She added that one of the biggest worries of libraries is about equal access to technology for all people.

BiblioTech's Virtual Visitors

The unlikely person who dreamed up the San Antonio library was Nelson Wolff, the top county official.

“It all started with my reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs,” said Wolff, who’s in his 70s. Wolff was fascinated with the speed of technology developed by the late co-founder of Apple Inc.

So, within about a year, Wolff came up with the revolutionary idea of a no-books library located in a poor part of San Antonio. He used available space in a county-owned building and had it up and running by last September. BiblioTech just added another branch in the jury room of the Bexar County Courthouse.

At first, the library collection only listed 10,000 e-books, but the library hopes to build the collection with 10,000 e-books each month.

Wolff, a politician and former businessman, collects first edition 20th-century books.

“I had refused to read e-books,” he said of the time before he began working on a digital library.


“I don’t read hardcover books,” Wolff said. “I buy them, but I don’t read them.”

That kind of thinking may be spreading. The BiblioTech attracts a steady flow of virtual visitors from around the world. Several San Antonio library officials are traveling to the Netherlands and England in a few weeks to make presentations about the library.

But Wolff is pleased that the local, majority Latino community has access to reading materials and the Internet.

“The main thing is people are using it,” he said.

He’s especially tickled that the jury duty branch is taking off.

“It’s been a big hit with all the jurors sitting around,” he said.

No Library Late Fees

County residents can sign on and download books on-site, and the library has gotten back the e-readers and tablets it loaned out.

“We’ve had a 100 percent return rate,” said Laura Jesse, Bexar County’s public information officer.

Downloaded e-books simply disappear from devices after two weeks, so that means no library late fees.

In downtown D.C., where the MLK library’s computers are the only way to access the Internet for many, users come from all economic levels. The many children and teens who use it enjoy the digital offerings, including gaming afternoons on the second floor

“Teens are digitally native,” said library spokesman George Williams. And the online-based libraries help break the digital divide between those who can afford home computers and those who can't, he said.

Nick Kerelchuk, manager of Digital Commons, described the MLK library scene as “a culture of people connecting and sharing together.”

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Anchor 1: What the Text Says

Why is it significant that the BiblioTech got its name from the Spanish word for "library"?


because San Antonio has a large Latino population


because they thought "library" sounded too boring


because the BiblioTech will be used by Spanish classes


because it shows how books can teach different languages

Anchor 1: What the Text Says

What concern are the new digital libraries responding to?


the concern that e-books are replacing paper books


the concern that young people will forget how to read


the concern that some people will grow up without iPads


the concern that everyone will be able to access information

Anchor 3: People, Events & Ideas

The article makes a connection between all of the following EXCEPT:


Internet access and money


Latinos and San Antonio


tablet rentals and theft


teens and digital devices

Anchor 3: People, Events & Ideas

Which of the following was NOT a result of the construction of the MLK Library's digital section?


stolen e-readers and tablets


access to high-tech tools like 3-D printers


many children and teens visiting the library


access to Internet for people of different economic backgrounds


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