Imagine walking into any of Harford's 10 public library branches to check out a toy your children can play with for a week.
"An educational toy," notes Philip A. Place, director of the Harford County Public Library, as he pretends to make a fox puppet talk. "All of our toys teach developmental skills."
The service is now available only at the Learning and Sharing Center in the library's main branch in Bel Air. Place hopes to make the program, which started before he came on board, available in each branch.
Capitalizing on the popularity of the toy loan service is just one example of how Place is trying to use imaginative ideas to guide the library system and its readers into the 21st century.
"I seethe library as being a catalyst for ideas in the community, through books, information and cultural activities," said Place, a soft-spoken man whose bookish appearance is that of the quintessential librarian.
"The county where I worked in Florida was about the same size as Harford. But the level of interest in the library was so much higher in Harford that I saw a different potential. There's a lot more respect for education and learning and culture in this area."
Place is giving priority to acquiring more books and audio-visual materials,especially items geared to the children of the many young families moving to Harford.
Members of the library's Board of Trustees say Place's vision and leadership the past three years have transformed the library system from one riddled with employee unrest and customer dissatisfaction into a service that suits the changing needs of library users.
"When he took over, the whole staff of the library was inturmoil. We were always in the news, and it was always bad news," recalled Dennis M. Pelletier, chairman of the Board of Trustees. "He stepped into a hornet's nest and calmed it down. He's set the library in a positive new direction."
Gloria Barnhart, another trustee, described Place as a "gently tenacious" man with foresight.
"Planningis another of his big accomplishments," said Barnhart. "Before he came, we always operated out of a crisis-need plan. Now we're reaching our goals."
Place's goals for the library in 1992 include buying anew computer system and building a new central branch building.
"My biggest fear is the old computer system will fail before we get a chance to replace it; it's not unusual when a system is so overloaded. If it fails, we're talking several years of chaos -- not usually what you expect in a library," said Place.
"It would take three times the people to handle the work we do with a computer, and you know we're not going to be able to afford to hire them."
Place's vision of what the Harford public library system should become in the next decade is at odds with the harsh reality of budget cuts.
To achievehis vision for a sophisticated system serving a library-hungry community, Place will request for fiscal year 1992-1993 a $2 million increase in the library's current operating budget of $4.6 million.
With today's budget-cutting atmosphere, he doesn't expect to see that increase.
But he will lobby hard for enough money to cover what he expects will be his main expense: a new computer system.
Place sayshe needs about $200,000 to make a down payment on the $1.5 million system.
The current system -- used for information storage needs ranging from a basic bibliographic file to tracking books checked in and out -- is nearly 12 years old. It's so obsolete it isn't sold any more, and service and parts won't be available after next year, said Place.
Also high on Place's list of priorities is a new central branch in Bel Air -- a necessity because the current branch is overburdened, he said.
"Anything you name, the Bel Air library is a victim of it: There are often people standing in line, there's no place to sit to read, there's no room to store materials, the Learning and Sharing Center is bulging at the seams. It's a grossly overused facility that needs a proper replacement," said Place.
He estimated construction of a new central branch would cost about $10 million. He has included $9 million toward that as part of his capital projects budget request for the 1992-1993 fiscal year which begins July 1.
It's part of a 10-year plan that also calls for construction of three new branches in Abingdon, Churchville and Jarrettsville.
"This long-range plan is a real achievement," said Place. "It gives everyone a blueprint of where we're going."