Walking into Texas’ newest library is like entering a high-end electronics store — the design is sleek with computers and tablets neatly spaced throughout the building. While patrons can use a variety of cutting-edge devices, the one thing they won’t find in this library is books, at least in the traditional sense. The Bexar County BiblioTech is a digital library; a place where community members go (or access remotely) to download e-books. And those who don’t have an e-reader or tablet can check out one of the 600 devices available to patrons.

Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, opened BiblioTech on Saturday, Sept. 14, just nine months after the idea was brought to light. County Judge Nelson Wolff was inspired after reading a biography about Apple founder Steve Jobs and wanted to create a place to provide residents with a combination of books and cutting-edge technology. The new facility is thought to be the nation’s first bookless public library. Instead of shelves full of books greeting patrons, they are met by a Discovery Station. Essentially an entire library in one computer, the station lets users scan their library card and use it to check e-books in and out.

“I came to government to change the world, and I think we’re doing that one thing at a time,” said Cathy Maras, CIO of Bexar County. Maras and her staff had no experience running or building a library, but that allowed them to design the facility without preconceptions. The county’s IT staff met with different groups and held technology summits to create a vision of what BiblioTech should be. The IT staff members learned about technologies like augmented reality and then how they could be developed in-house.

With the goal of getting the library running by the start of the school year, Maras said cloud technology helped make BiblioTech a reality in record time. Because the county didn’t have existing library infrastructure, it worked with multiple vendors — including 3M for an e-book, cloud-based library and Polaris to handle patron and fee data — to integrate hosted systems to fit BiblioTech’s needs. “My IT department’s role was more the look and feel,” said Maras adding that her staff members focused on innovation.

While BiblioTech is a place to read and access books, it isn’t meant to replace the traditional library. “We want to complement the San Antonio library system,” Maras said. The librarians will help direct people to the proper channels for research and other needs, while using the new space to introduce them to new technologies.

Tech-Forward Approach

Dominating the main room, 48 24-inch iMacs are equipped with both Apple and Microsoft operating systems. A tech tutorial tool, Atomic Training, can teach users everything from basic computer skills to specialized programs like Adobe Photoshop and GarageBand. Those wanting to learn a new language can use the Mango Languages system. Following each user’s computer session, the information is wiped to provide a secure experience, said Maras.

Tablets line one wall in the main room, and two smaller enclosed rooms equipped with wall-mounted monitors await study groups or innovation sessions. In another part of the library, the children’s room features interactive Surface tables loaded with Kaplan educational games. Children also have dedicated iPads for reading, and an Xbox Kinect provides another opportunity for interactive learning. “We’re really trying to promote literacy with the use of technology because it’s so exciting and kids of all ages are drawn to it,” said Head Librarian Ashley Eklof.

In numerous locations around the library, patrons will see Techolote, the library’s owl-shaped logo and indicator for when augmented reality is available. Users simply scan the logo with a smartphone or tablet using the Aurasma image recognition app to bring up information about the library and browse books. Patrons also can scan an image of the library's book of the month, which is highlighted on a large screen in the facility’s main room, to access audio and text information about the selection.

“Technology is ongoing, it’s changing, and with our newest generation, they’re always looking for the next and best thing," said Todd Alvis, the county’s e-services and innovation technology manager. "And I think this is one of the things that they’ll love and will draw them in.”

County IT staff can change what’s highlighted on the library screens at any time from a central location. For example, if students are learning about the pyramids in school, the theme can be spread throughout the library to add a tech-based, interactive component.

The Discovery Stations link to 3M's Cloud Library App, giving patrons a self-service experience. After checking out a book, it’s automatically transferred to the person’s account, and he or she can use the app to download the book on up to five devices. In the future, the stations could allow for a BiblioTech experience outside of the library’s walls. A Discovery Station could be set up anywhere, in a grocery store, for example, to expand accessibility in the community.

Providing the opportunity for residents to not only read books but also learn about and become comfortable with technology is the digital library’s driving force. “Judge Wolff really wanted a wow factor here at BiblioTech to draw these folks in,” Maras said. “[It’s also a place] to use technology and bring school problems here and work them out, and really be an asset in the community.”

Elaine Pittman  |  Associate Editor

Elaine Pittman is the associate editor for Government Technology, Public CIO and Emergency Management. Before coming to Government Technology, she worked for The Coloradoan daily newspaper in Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached via email and @elainerpittman on Twitter.