Outgoing Librarian Still Looks To Future

COMMENT

April 11, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM

I wasn't surprised when I found Martha Makovsky reading a stack of articles when I met her for lunch. Nothing could be more appropriate for the director of Carroll County's libraries.

Ms. Makovsky's reading wasn't the light, enjoyable variety. She was reading about the prospect in the future for electronic information "highways," linking libraries, schools and government offices with huge data bases. Computer users will tap into these banks to retrieve information, find books and communicate with others.

"I am just trying to understand what a library could be in this kind of world," she says, as she stuffs the articles into her briefcase.

An energetic woman with a keen intellect, Ms. Makovsky has been looking to the future since she joined the library 27 years ago. The residents of Carroll have been the beneficiaries of her foresight and tireless championing of their libraries.

When Carroll's system consisted of three tiny libraries, Ms. Makovsky was visualizing a well-stocked system with full-service branches strategically located throughout the county. Now, she envisions a system that would allow patrons to cull computer data banks for information, ranging from books to raw demographic statistics at the U.S. Census Bureau.

Her thinking is not limited to getting such a system off the ground.

She is also concerned about making sure that everyone -- regardless of economic situation -- has access to it. Ms. Makovsky is worried that society may break down into the "information rich" and the "information poor," who lack the money to buy computers or pay for computer time and thus may find themselves excluded from this information revolution.

By this fall, however, the practical concerns of establishing such a system for Carroll will not fall on Ms. Makovsky's shoulders. She has announced her retirement. The future of the library will be in the hands of her successor, who will likely have to fight many of the same battles Ms. Makovsky waged during her 23 years as director.

Ms. Makovsky has held three positions in the system. She started as a clerk, became deputy director and then director. "Whenever young librarians ask me about my career advancement," she says, "I tell them that it is easy to climb the ladder of success when it only has three rungs."

Despite the wide variety of people and groups who make use of the library, no single organized constituency argues on its behalf.

That job usually falls to the director, a fact that Ms. Makovsky recognized early on.

Carroll's commissioners have often been skeptical of her plans. They believed Ms. Makovsky demanded too much for the libraries. She wanted too much space, branches that were too fancy, a staff that was paid too well. Just about everything she asked for was treated as though it were an extravagance rather than as necessary building blocks for a first-rate system.

Years ago, when she presented the initial plans for the Westminster branch, the commissioners complained there was too much space. They fought her decision to put a copper roof on the building.

But when that branch opened, several dozen people were patiently standing in line waiting to be among the first to borrow from it. A heavy volume of borrowers from throughout the county has yet to let up. And the attractive building has evolved into a focal point on Main Street that attracts a great deal of traffic to the heart of Westminster.

More important, Ms. Makovsky has emerged as a champion of literacy in the broadest sense.

Under her guidance, bookmobiles visited day care centers. Even though the children were too young to read, they learned that books were fun and entertaining. "We need to program our future users," she explains.

Ms. Makovsky says that she still sees some of the children who were in those day care centers in the early 1970s, except they are now adults and they have young children they bring into the libraries.

She also believes that the county libraries are essential adjuncts to the county's educational institutions. Most of life's learning takes place outside classrooms. Libraries, stocked with relevant materials, enhance the classroom experience.

The force of her arguments is impressive. She bucked the trend by expanding the number of branches during a period when many library systems elsewhere had stopped growing. During the recent round of budget balancing, many counties closed branches and generally cut back library services.

While suffering its share of budget reductions, Carroll's five libraries still provide a fairly high level of service. Surveys of Carroll's library patrons show that about 98 percent are satisfied.

"We don't want this expectation of excellence reduced," Ms. Makovsky says. "If anything, we want the expectation to increase. If we can provide people with good information and a good library, the usage will only increase."

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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