November 24, 2017

Second BiblioTech Coming to Bexar County Housing Development

BiblioCardEager to expand the reach of its innovative all-digital library, officials in Bexar County (TX) plan to open a second full-service BiblioTech in June as part of a sprawling public housing development on San Antonio’s west side.

The new 2,100-square-foot BiblioTech is envisioned as a featured amenity of the recently completed third phase of The Gardens at San Juan Square, a $31 million mixed-use project built by the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA). Existing space originally earmarked for commercial use will instead be retrofit into the new BiblioTech, which will be about half the size of the Pleasanton Road facility that created a national sensation when it opened in September 2013 as the country’s first bookless library.

Bexar County and SAHA officials are touting the plan as the first marriage of public housing and state-of-the-art library innovation. BiblioTech Administrator Laura Cole told Library Journal she hopes to have a budget approved in January so work can begin on the new BiblioTech early in 2015.

“It’s a new way of doing libraries again,” Cole said. “It really fits within our mission.… With a digital library you can’t be passive. Because a digital library can go anywhere, it should go everywhere. We’ve got an opportunity to be ubiquitous.”

THE RIGHT SITE

BiblioTech already operates a satellite location in the central jury room at the Bexar County Courthouse and it has a range of ongoing projects with 14 regional school districts. But Cole said a search had been ongoing for a second “anchor” facility and The Gardens at San Juan proved to be the right match.

“We actually reached out to them and pitched the idea,” said Lourdes M. Castro Ramirez, SAHA’s chief executive officer, adding that BiblioTech officials carefully scouted the proposed South Zarzamora Street location before signing on. “This was the right site that met their goals.”

The Gardens at San Juan Square’s third phase includes 252 residential units and 4,000 square feet of commercial/retail space. Twelve units have been designated work-live spaces, where residents operate small businesses on the ground floor with living quarters upstairs.

Walking trails, a park, a plaza space, and a swimming pool have been included as a way to connect all three phases of the mixed-use project, which were designed to transform San Antonio’s economically depressed west side into a safer, more attractive landscape for families and entrepreneurs. “It was definitely an area in decline,” Ramirez said.

SAHA and Bexar County will share construction costs, Cole said, although the exact split is still being negotiated.

ACCESS AND GROWTH

The BiblioTech component, officials say, will also provide critical online access to a segment of lower-income residents, including children, who currently lack sufficient Internet resources.

Said Cole, “It sort of connects our mission to [Obama’s] goal, which is to make broadband available to all students.”

Cole said the plan is to operate the new BiblioTech along the same parameters as the original facility, keeping its doors open eight hours a day, seven days a week. Forty desktop computer stations, available free of charge, will dominate the floor plan, and ereaders will be loaned to patrons.

The first-year operating budget has been estimated at $500,000, Cole said, with FTEs providing the bulk of expenses.

BiblioTech’s 4,000-square-foot flagship location, meanwhile, continues to be wildly popular. “The numbers are crazy high right now,” Cole said, boasting of a registered patron base that now exceeds 45,000.

The second BiblioTech won’t signal a protracted pause in Bexar County’s ambitious growth plan for its all-digital library model. “We have made a commitment to another anchor-facility BiblioTech on the east side” of San Antonio, Cole told LJ.

BUDGET TENSIONS

Bexar County operates BiblioTech independently of San Antonio Public Library (SAPL), which runs 26 branches, including a handful outside the city limits serving unincorporated communities. In past years, long before the first BiblioTech was built, the county contributed to SAPL’s operating budget, including a $3.78 million payment approved last fall that was folded into the city system’s $35 million spending plan for FY14–15.

But tensions arose in 2014 when Bexar County officials indicated a desire to pay less in future years, arguing they had no say in SAPL’s budget and BiblioTech alone served as a vital contribution toward regional library services. SAPL leaders, while careful to laud BiblioTech’s impact, were equally adamant that a county payment was both fair and necessary to keep the city system financially solvent.

In November 2014, Seth Mitchell, assistant to the Bexar County manager, informed SAPL director Ramiro Salazar in a letter that the county intended to “step down” its annual contribution by $300,000 a year over four years, for a total reduction of $1.2 million. “To fill this gap, we offer to become the digital provider of library materials to the San Antonio Library system,” Mitchell wrote.

Salazar has previously maintained that any rollback of Bexar County’s financial contribution was unacceptable, arguing that SAPL provides invaluable library services for untold numbers of county residents.

Salazar told LJ the two sides will meet on January 7 in hopes of making progress on a mutually agreeable resolution. The county and SAPL will each send three representatives to the session, with Salazar and Mitchell among the key figures attending.

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