County must ease library crunch


January 02, 2000|By NORRIS WEST

IF YOU WANT adult nonfiction from the Odenton branch of the Anne Arundel County public library, your choices are limited to six shallow aisles.

Fiction? The selection's not much better.

The library's "quiet study" area, behind the children's section, has four small, round tables, each with two chairs. There's not much room for a fifth table.

Children last week were enjoying winter break instead of cramming for tests or completing last-minute projects, so there was no competition for the tables. But it's easy to see why residents are frustrated with the library's limited collection and space.

And they're right. Librarians can't squeeze many volumes or chairs into an 8,000 square-foot-building.

At one time, perhaps, this branch may have been adequate, but not since western Anne Arundel's population swelled.

From 1970 to 1995, the county's population grew by 178,000 -- greater than Carroll County's current population. The western portion of the county absorbed much of that growth as planners steered new development to Odenton, Severn, Maryland City/Jessup, Gambrills and Crofton.

Growth has created a need for services such as libraries. Communities such as Piney Orchard and Seven Oaks are transforming Odenton into a vibrant place.

It deserves a bigger library.

The good news for Odenton is that the county's library board agrees; the board wants the county to plan a library there.

The bad news for Odenton: It is only second in line, and a proposed site for a new library is entangled in political controversy.

Crofton vs. Odenton

Crofton has also outgrown its 14,000 square-foot library, in a shopping center. And, Crofton has the jump on Odenton. The library board has agreed to ask County Executive Janet S. Owens for $8.5 million to build the planned community a new branch.

Crofton and Odenton have quarreled for years over who should get funding first.

"We fully appreciate the concern for any library branch, but we have to go with the priorities and hope the county will fund them," said David Marshall, the library's chief of public service and branch management. "We can't get into a neighborhood feud."

Odenton's need may be greater, but Crofton should go first if only because the county already is doing planning and engineering work there. But Odenton shouldn't have to wait long. The library board is seeking $620,000 in the county's fiscal fear 2001 budget to plan and engineer the larger Odenton library, which would cost $13 million to build.

Ms. Owens hasn't decided whether to build a regional library in the Odenton town center. Her predecessor, John G. Gary, bought land for that purpose toward the end of his administration, but that deal has become controversial because it appeared to benefit a political ally.

Ms. Owens now thinks the county could build and operate a swim center on the property. That's an interesting idea, but the site has enough room for pools and books. The executive should provide planning money for an Odenton branch. The central west county location at Route 175 and Telegraph Road would be ideal for the county's third regional library.

Planning money will ease some concerns in Odenton. Still, residents know that if an economic downtown comes and the county's income tax revenue falls, library expansion could come to a halt. The county will have difficulty providing services like new libraries while hamstrung by a tax cap that limits the property tax revenue it can collect. Eventually, the county will have to confront the tax cap problem.

Antiquated branches

Meanwhile, Ms. Owens should confront the library crunch. The space constraints in Odenton and Crofton are part of a systemic problem.

The county's two regional branches, Annapolis and Harundale, have only about half the space of newer regional libraries in other jurisdictions. After the county builds the two west county branches, officials must bring up to current standards the two existing regional locations.

"We simply need more breathing room," Mr. Marshall said." Everything is so crowded in Annapolis. We will have to add some PCs and some tables for people to use.

"The desire of the public to read is very strong. Bookstores are doing very well and they're putting a lot of capital into those operations. We're doing well, too."

Circulation of all materials has risen from 3.8 million in 1989 to 5.1 million in the fiscal year that ended last June, Mr. Marshall said. Last year, Ms. Owens put libraries, public safety, senior citizens concerns and other budget requests on the backburner while she gave generously to schools. This year, schools remain a key concern as does agricultural preservation and transportation.

But she cannot wait long to find some library money for a county that reads -- and listens to books on tape -- in cramped quarters.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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