A Novel Leader

Hagerstown's Mary Baykan, the new national Librarian of the Year, has been a force for libraries throughout Maryland

March 05, 2007|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN REPORTER

HAGERSTOWN — HAGERSTOWN-- --On her first day as new director of the Washington County Free Library, Mary Baykan learned the state had rolled Internet cable "right into the back door" of the place.

It was 1995, and the system was slowly making its way into Western Maryland. Nobody knew much about the newfangled thing. The connection lay dormant.

"Turn it on," Baykan said.

With that simple act, Baykan (pronounced "Bye-can") activated a new era and signaled the approach that would turn her into a state and national force in the world of libraries.

FOR THE RECORD - A Today section article yesterday about librarian Mary Baykan should have described Lynn Wheeler as director of the Carroll County Public Library, not Caroline County.
The Sun regrets the errors.

"Sometimes, you have to see what you've got and make the best use of it," says Baykan, who was chosen in January as the 2006 national Librarian of the Year by Library Journal, the industry's top trade publication. The honor came not just for her work in transforming the Washington County system, but also for library appropriations bills she has helped shepherd through the General Assembly during the past two years.

"The public is making so many new demands on libraries today, all of them legitimate," says Jim Fish, director of the Baltimore County Public Library in Towson. "They need dollars, and Mary has certainly gotten results."

According to colleagues and lawmakers, Baykan blends strong research, creativity and a down-home approach into a potent argument: that libraries, far from being anachronisms in a digital world, are latent powerhouses of change, as ready for activation as so many unused cables.

"She presents her case very powerfully," says state Del. Sheila E. Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee. "She has certainly proven to me that libraries are beyond just books."

Baykan says, "In the 21st century ... libraries aren't just passive repositories ... and librarians aren't just those little old ladies who say `shhhh!' We're people on a mission."

More than 137,000 librarians work at roughly 30,000 libraries in the United States. What set Baykan apart, says John Berry, editor-at-large of Library Journal, was her accomplishments on two levels - shaping a rural community while having a major impact statewide.

When Baykan arrived in Washington County, its commissioners hadn't built a new library in a century. At Washington County Free Library's central branch, a third of the light fixtures were burned out, and funding in general had flatlined. Today, the county has two new branches with a third on the way. The central library, with an annual budget of $4 million, offers e-mail service, round-the-clock online interaction with reference librarians and digital access to databases worldwide.

A visit to downtown Hagerstown offers a glimpse into Baykan's impact. On the first floor of the central library, teens and senior citizens check out books and DVDs. A grandma tows three girls to a bank of computers. They're a few of the 350,000 or so who visit the central library each year, a sharp increase from a decade earlier.

"At a time when so many forces are pulling us apart in society, the public library is still a place of community," Baykan says.

`A noble calling'

Her second-floor office, roomy and cheerfully cluttered, reinforces the point. In 1905, a predecessor of hers, a librarian named Mary Titcomb, invented the bookmobile in Washington County. A horse-and-buggy model in a glass case recalls the period.

"If the man can't go to the book," she quotes Titcomb as saying, "the book must go to the man."

A framed print shows "Pack Horse Librarians" of the 1930s loading up saddlebags. After the Great Depression, as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, librarians on horseback took books and periodicals to the remote hollows and hills of Eastern Kentucky.

"In America," Baykan says, "everyone has a right to information."

She learned that herself not long after college. A political science major at the University of Houston, she took a job on a reference desk as a possible bridge to law school, but the work inspired thoughts of a different sort of public service.

Young and old alike brought questions. One woman wanted books so she could learn why her daughter hated her. Sick folks, some of them frightened, needed medical texts. One preteen boy asked for a map of the Uncharted Territories.

The reference questions "could be silly, poignant or matters of life and death," Baykan says. "Every day was something you couldn't see coming. But information was vital. This seemed like a noble calling."

Americans were the first people, she says, to enjoy public libraries as a matter of course. From Benjamin Franklin, who pooled resources with friends in 1731 to establish what many call the first public library, the Library Company of Philadelphia, to later pioneers like Titcomb, American librarians have brought a service that goes to the heart of liberty.

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