At Boston’s #Muse15: SELF-e Arrives With An Endorsement From Texas

When a library is all-digital, this is all that's needed for it to take its entire collection to the juror-selection center of a county court system. Image: BiblioTech, San Antonio, Texas
When a library is all-digital, this is all that’s needed for it to take its entire collection to the juror-selection center of a county court system. Image: BiblioTech, San Antonio, Texas

 ‘They May Not Even See Themselves As Publishable’

For us, finding SELF-e was a great fit. We looked a long time for how we were going to make this happen. But SELF-e was a package that we could just accept.

Laura Cole really knows her digital. She also knows the plight of self-publishing authors who have had trouble getting their work into libraries.

Cole is the Administrator of San Antonio’s BiblioTech. You may have heard of it: “the library with no books” that Bexar County (pronounced “Bear”) opened in September 2013. With some 60,000 registered patrons today, BiblioTech has become a point of pride in its community and of forward-looking book culture for many around the country who keep hearing of “that all-digital library, nothing in there but computers.”

Author Aminetta Forna's  keynote address on May 3 at The Muse and the Marketplace is set in the Park Plaza Imperial Ballroom in Boston. Image: Grub Street
Author Aminetta Forna’s keynote address on May 3 at The Muse and the Marketplace is set in the Park Plaza Imperial Ballroom in Boston. Image: Grub Street

But as advanced as BiblioTech’s development may be, with its wide array of digitally enabled services, Cole and her staff face the same problem that a library full of physical books faces when it comes to trying to choose and acquire self-published books: how do you sort out this rising sea of independent titles?

As it happens, attendees at Grub Street’s annual The Muse and the Marketplace Conference produced by Executive Director Eve Bridburg, Artistic Director Chris Castellani, and Assistant Director Sonya Larson in Boston on May 3 (9 a.m. in Park Plaza’s Back Bay room) will be hearing the authors’ side of the answer.

In a conference session called “The Library Market: Breaking In, Building Readership,” we’ll focus on the new SELF-e program from Library Journal and Biblioboard. SELF-e is being rolled out this spring to curate independent authors’ ebooks for librarians and make them available at both the state and national levels — at no cost to the author. Writers at the Sunday morning session at The Muse will learn the steps to take to be included in catalogs going to their states’ libraries, and how to have a chance at being offered to the full national system.

And as Muse writers talk through the challenges of the digital dynamic in a rather ornately refurbished city hotel in Boston (follow hashtag #Muse15, May 1-3), Cole and her team at BiblioTech already have SELF-e information on their Web site and at their sleek facility on Pleasanton Road in San Antonio.

They’re not only willing to consider local authors’ work, they’re actively flagging SELF-e to those writers to help them find this opportunity.

I’m hopeful that we’ll see a lot of poetry through SELF-e. I think that would be very exciting. I think it’s a perfect opportunity for poets. The other thing I’d love to see happen through SELF-e is younger writers, junior writers take this opportunity. They may not even see themselves as publishable and that may not be true. SELF-e is a great, safe way to give it a shot.

San Antonio's bookless BiblioTech library from its circulation desk. Image provided by BiblioTech
San Antonio’s bookless BiblioTech library from its circulation desk. Image provided by BiblioTech

‘Digital Can Creep Under Doors, Permeate Walls’

Would you like to hear a kind word for digital? So frequently is it growled by exhausted publishing specialists or harried gadget users that many of us can forget the magnificent access this force makes possible.

Laura Cole
Laura Cole

Sit by Cole for a few minutes and listen. The more she sees her bookless library at work, the more she seems to understand digital as the profoundly valuable distributional ether it is.

Here she is:

We’ve known for some time that digital can serve in ways that physical can’t. It’s kind of like water. It can creep under doors, it can permeate walls, it can reach through razor wire.

We’ve been working a lot through county services, with the jail population and with the juvenile detention center. There’s nothing that would give me more joy than to see kids in juvenile detention become avid readers and discover that there’s something outside of what their personal experience is, and down the line change them.

And we’ve become involved with the visually impaired community…We have a visually impaired patron who came in the first time and was thrilled to death. She’s always been in physical libraries that had a few braille books. And that is not the case at our library. We make accommodations through voice-over on iPads, we have a braille-text converter so if you’re reading you can hook it up to the iPad and it will translate on a braille machine so students can read that way. And this is a big population. We didn’t realize how many people weren’t being served.

The home-bound who can’t get out — they’re disabled or elderly? We can reach them. They don’t have to come into our space. They have digital reading available to them, they can make font sizes larger so it’s easier for them to read, they don’t have to carry pounds and pounds of books around.

And what about the library, itself, the place? What is an all-digital library like?

To start? Smaller.

“Our main branch”, Cole says, “and it seems odd to even call it a ‘main branch,’ is 4,800 square feet,” maybe a third of what  you might expect in a traditional city library with bookshelves and card catalogs and other space-eaters that standard-collection elements might require.

“We also have brought our entire library into the central jury room” in Bexar County’s court building — “and we operate there within just 500 square feet of space.” There, Cole’s staff operates an ebook-and-e-reader checkout service for cititzens called for jury duty. “We will sign you up for a library card, you can check out a device if you haven’t brought one with you, download the materials you pick out and spend the entire day reading.”

Suddenly jury duty looks good, right?

We’re at the Warrior and Family Support Center of our local military hosptial. SAMMC, the San Antonio Military Medical Center is the largest military hospital in the country. We send staff there every week just to teach them what we have provided — links for their computers at Support Center —and we send staff on a weekly basis to get them registered. If they’re on a base here, they have Bexar County address. They’re here for a good length of time. So we can register them for services and say thank you that way.

And in July, we will be opening up our second branch. It and the next one will be located in a brand new public housing project, so we can digitally bring an entire library and put it into a public-housing facilty — in 2,100 square feet. We’ll provide technology resources, digital resources and, most important, training.

In one of these smaller spaces in which a BiblioTech branch operates, what you see instead of books is computer terminals.

“People can sit down, do some homework, look for a job, take advantage of our free Internet connections, free wi-fi.”

A class at San Antonio's all-digital library. Image: BiblioTech
A class at San Antonio’s all-digital library. Image: BiblioTech

And, at the same time, BiblioTech maintains a schedule of events and courses that are comparable to those of most community library programs. Author readings? Of course. Just surrounded by glowing screens instead of by paper books. A list of special resources includes some 6,000 audiobooks from Hugh McGuire’s LibriVox program and a deepening inventory of activities and research options.

Using 3M as its key distributor, BiblioTech is the brainchild of Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolf, whose development of a physical library now has led him to this leap into a digitally powered alternative.

And more will follow. Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland has opened an 11,000-square-feet “bookless library” that has received much of the kind of pushback and controversy that Cole says BiblioTech did.

And then 60,000 patrons signed up.

It may be no wonder, then, that SELF-e is perhaps more rapidly understood and appreciated at BiblioTech than in most libraries. It’s free to writers who want to have their books represented in libraries because the libraries subscribe to “modules” of curated ebooks from Library Journal and Biblioboard. Cole tells me that the cost to libraries for the SELF-e subscription is very much within budgetary range and highly time-efficient because it saves a harried staff from having to try to read the steady deluge of self-published works that come out daily.

Could an author at the Muse in Boston find his or her book in the San Antonio-based collection of BiblioTech some day? Yes, it’s possible. Authors who submit their ebooks to SELF-e are automatically included in their own states’ SELF-e catalogs but can also put themselves into consideration for national collections that cross state lines, offering librarians of the 9,700 library systems operating in the States today.

And as Muse attendees in Boston will focus on how, as authors, to access SELE-e’s new free channel to curation for librarians, Cole and her team in San Antonio will be expanding teh digital scale of their colletions with more and more self-published work.

“The SELF-e contract was approved by our board in February. We pay a platform fee and we pay a minimum content purchase. Neither of those is overly restrictive for us, it’s pretty similar to what we’d pay for another product,” she says. She sees no conflict, she says, with 3M’s distribution contract at the library.

“Ultimately some of these authors may find their way into 3M’s collection, as well.”

As she says. Like water. As digital faciliates BiblioTech’s outreach to its own community, its SELF-e program is about to facilitate the other route — new ebooks, incoming, from authors who now need no traditional publisher or distributor to put them there.

“I will be interested to see what we get,” Cole says.

The lines are open. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson is a journalist focused on books and the industry! the industry! of publishing.

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