BiblioTech's Digital Libraries Help Bridge Digital Divide as San Antonio Weathers the Pandemic

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FACEBOOK/ BIBLIOTECH
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Just before summer, an 11-year-old student visited BiblioTech's Public Library South location for help. The boy had been issued a laptop from his school, but he didn't have internet access at home and a language barrier kept him from understanding the login information.

A librarian issued a hotspot for the student to access at home, then helped him set up a Zoom meeting with his teacher to figure out information needed to use the computer.



The 11 year old had missed four weeks of school, but thanks to BiblioTech's help was able to make a virtual return to class.

"We have hotspots available, we have technology available, we're here to help," BiblioTech Director Laura Cole told the Current.



When BiblioTech opened its inaugural branch on San Antonio's South Side in 2013, the idea was to be the nation's first all-digital library. What Cole didn't know was that the project had also created a library system able to weather the current public health crisis.

"We really are the library that was built for the pandemic," the director said.

BiblioTech — a play on the Spanish word for library — is the first-ever countywide library system that's entirely bookless and electronic, according to local officials. The free system was created in collaboration with the Bexar County Commissioners Court and literary nonprofit the Hidalgo Foundation.

Bexar County residents can register for a library card and begin accessing more than 40,000 titles without ever stepping foot into one of BiblioTech's four San Antonio branches.

'Wifi Has Become a Basic Service'

Beyond free virtual access, basic services offered through BiblioTech helped county residents affected by the COVID-19 pandemic bridge the digital divide.

The public library reopened BiblioTech's South, West and East branches May 4 at 25% capacity, but its fourth location, Central Jury, remains closed. A press release said the opening was a response to essential services needed by the community, such as internet access for job searches and digital support for children navigating online school.

Services such as copying, scanning, faxing and computer access are also available on a limited basis.

"We're limiting people's time to one hour on the computer to maintain people's safety," Cole said. "But in that hour, we're finding that people are applying to jobs, they are applying for unemployment, they are faxing documents, they are working on rental assistance and housing assistance."

Cole added that patrons are also using their screen time for medical uses such as telemedicine appointments.

"It's a funny thing, because in some senses, the services that people need are fairly basic, they are not highly sophisticated." Cole said. "People need basic services."

She added: "Wifi, at this point in our lives, has become a basic service."

When the COVID-19 pandemic reached San Antonio, BiblioTech closed its branches a week shy of county orders. It wasn't an easy decision. Cole understood how much of the public relied on the libraries for internet connections and digital devices.

To meet the challenge, the electronic library established curbside services offering free internet hotspots and tablets.

BiblioTech had been providing hotspots and Kindles to the public since 2017. But with more people working from home and students learning remotely, demand built for those essential devices.

"This has been one of the biggest needs," Cole said. "We've extended our hotspot zone checkout period to three weeks now [from two], during the pandemic."

Along with a collection of ebooks, audiobooks, newspapers and magazines, BiblioTech's electronic library also offers over 500 learning courses in a variety of subjects plus business-related skills training.

"What we've seen a lot with our active learning platforms, is that people are using them because they are looking to potentially retrain for new careers," Cole said.

Since so many people have lost jobs during the pandemic, BiblioTech has also experienced wide use of its skill training platform, Linda.com, according to Cole.

"We've seen a tremendous uptick in our usage of those platforms — particularly with coding and software programs," Cole said. "People have a lot of time on their hands and realize they need to re-skill themselves."

Uncertainty With Schools Reopening

Before reopening, each BiblioTech branch went through several dry runs to see how things would work. Cole said they came into this digital divide well prepared, adequately staffed and confident in the training and safety protocols.

As the new school year potentially gets underway, remote education is likely to play a major role for Bexar County students. Cole predicts libraries will experience more situations like 11-year-old student unable to use his school-issued laptop.

"People still need to get their work done," Cole said. "So, we're here for them."

BiblioTech is open Monday through Friday, 9a.m.-5 p.m. The Public Library asks that patrons wear masks and follow safety guidelines for social distancing. Currently, only one person per household is allowed to enter per visit.

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