More check out Howard's libraries

Readers: With added services and marketing, branches are attracting a growing number of patrons.

January 03, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Sitting in the warm, bustling lobby of the Howard County Central Library in Columbia, Sanjay Choudhary balanced his sleeping son Raghav, 3, on his right shoulder while holding a novel written in Hindi in his left hand.

It's a scene that county library officials welcome and are striving to encourage -- the idea that the library is a place to be comfortable, yet a source of materials and services people increasingly need and want.

With items in 25 languages, including a donated collection of 600 books in Chinese and a new series of sign-language videos for the deaf community, the county's six-branch library system is reaching out to every segment of the public.

That effort is bearing fruit, library director Valerie J. Gross said.

Across the nation, public libraries are becoming more attractive destinations for education and entertainment in economically troubled times. But many are being forced to close branches, curtail hours and cut staff because of decreasing revenues.

Not in Howard, where aggressive marketing and cutting-edge services in new and renovated branches are drawing growing numbers of patrons.

Overall, Howard's circulation figures show a 53 percent increase in borrowing for all materials last year -- 4.2 million items -- compared with 2000. Audio-visual items, such as books on tape, DVDs (up 89 percent) and videos (up 45 percent), led the increase, said associate director Brian K. Auger.

Howard's growth in circulation continued even though the library's central branch was closed 15 months for renovations -- from summer 2000 to late last year. The system's sixth branch opened in Glenwood in August 2000.

Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties' libraries have not seen much change in their circulation during the same period.

Jim Fish, Baltimore County library director, said his system circulated from 3 percent to 5 percent more materials during the past several years. Andrea Lewis, spokeswoman for the Anne Arundel system, said circulation has been flat during the past two years.

Howard library use has increased to the point that Gross is asking for six new full-time and four more part-time staffers in next year's budget -- despite a $1.8 billion projected state budget shortfall and the likelihood that local governments will have to absorb part of that burden.

"It's crucial that we receive those additional positions," said Gross, because after spending months inventing ways to attract more people to the county's libraries, the staff of 330 full- and part-time workers can't be stretched further.

"I feel the increases are the result of new and innovative programs. Our staff has embraced a customer-service philosophy," Gross said.

Nationally, times of recession have spurred more library use, a study released in April found.

An American Library Association-sponsored study of 25 big-city library systems showed library use up 8.3 percent last year over 1997, supporting a theory that libraries are used more in bad economic periods. Also, instead of computers making libraries less valued, the study showed that 91 percent of adults surveyed felt that libraries are important to the future -- a conclusion Howard library officials are working hard to ensure.

Everything from books that can be read on hand-held wireless computers to satellite-aided, land-mapping data is making the library more, not less, useful, said Auger, as he showed off his index-card-size, wireless computer.

To help attract more borrowers, Gross said, she is determined to keep Howard's library services free, except for late-return fines, and to extend the library's reach into the community as much as possible. She has done away with a $1 charge to replace lost library cards, for example, "to encourage customers to come back," Gross said. New cards that will attach to key rings will make losing them harder, she said.

"The thing that's changed the most," associate director Liz Lancaster says, is that years ago "you'd go out and people would have a story about fines" or something negative. Now, she said "people have something positive to say," about the county's libraries.

The staff has created links to seniors, public schools, the deaf, farmers, the Chinese community, home-schoolers and the county's transportation advocates.

Children in all of the county's 69 schools automatically get library cards in school if they don't have one. Each school is assigned to a library, and there is a system teachers can use to notify librarians about class assignments ahead of time so materials can be ready when the students appear.

Back-to School nights and faculty meetings are sometimes held in libraries, Gross said, and there are Spanish-language and Chinese story times.

There are evening programs at libraries for adults and teens and a library table at the summer farmers' markets at the East Columbia branch. A popular novelist has drawn up to 400 people for an evening discussion session.

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