County library system listed as best of its size in the nation

Rating based on factors including circulation, staffing, materials


Diane Chesley was listening to the radio in her car and heard mention of a new book.

The Columbia resident decided to make a detour to the east Columbia Branch Library before heading home.

"At first I thought about going to the bookstore," Chesley said. "Then I remembered I can go to the library and I don't have to pay for it."

Free access to books is only one of the draws for Chesley and other residents that use the Howard County library system, which this year was rated first in the country by Hennen's American Public Library Ratings among libraries serving communities of 250,000 to 499,999.

The customer service, selection of books and friendly, casual ambience has patrons frequenting the county's six library branches in record numbers.

"They are very helpful here, and it's very convenient," Chesley said.

The county library system logged a total of about 2.2 million visitors and 5 million items circulated last year, and use of the system has doubled in the past three years, officials said.

This year, Howard County's library system bumped the Santa Clara (Calif.) County Library system from the first place for its category in the Hennen rating, which looks at more than 9,000 libraries in all 50 states. The system's scorecard ranks libraries by calculating circulation, staffing, materials, reference service and funding levels. Last year, Santa Clara was rated first and Howard County was third.

"We take pride in being the top-rated library system, and we will capitalize on that to hopefully inspire more people to capitalize on the education opportunities for all ages that we provide at the library," said Valerie J. Gross, director of the library system.

She credits the system's top ranking to its programs and donations.

"Public funding makes us possible, but it's the grants and donations that allow us to flourish and give above budget signature programs," Gross said.

One example: A+ Partners in Education, which provides a collaboration between public schools and libraries, encouraging students to use the library system and its resources. Resources such as wireless Internet have been a recent draw for many adults, Gross added.

Gross said 95 percent of the county's eligible residents have a library card. The numbers are due in part to a school initiative that provides library card applications for kindergartners and other new schoolchildren.

"The benefit for us is that people then link us to education and will use us - students who value us though their K-12th grade will continue to use us and then bring their children," she said.

Nationwide, libraries have become a community meeting places, gearing their resources to patrons of all ages and interests, said Leslie Burger, president-elect of the American Library Association and director of the Princeton Public Library in New Jersey.

"Libraries today are looking at how people use their free time and see how they can adapt their program to them," Burger said.

On a recent afternoon, the East Columbia branch displayed that diversity.

Students recently dismissed from school descended on the library to do homework, pick up books and receive tutoring from library staff.

Amanda Sales, 8, perused the children's section - a colorful area of the library with a rain forest motif - and had a handful of books tucked under her arm. She makes frequent trips to the library as she works to complete the Magic Tree House series - a total of more than 30 books.

While Amanda walked to the checkout counter, other patrons were busy working, socializing and typing on their laptops. In one aisle, Chesley searched a row of books for the one she'd heard mentioned on the radio. Not finding it, she said she would ask a librarian for help, confident the book could be located at the branch or shipped in a few days.

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