"When totalitarians take over a country, what's their first instinct?" Baykan says. "To burn books, to close libraries and printing presses. Access to information is nothing less than the basis of a free society."
Compared with that of most states, Maryland's library system is a model of comity. Some have hundreds of libraries under a dizzying array of jurisdictions. Here, each of the 23 counties and Baltimore City has a regional system with a central branch. All are part of the State Department of Education.
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.
A lineage of impassioned librarians helped shape the system. Enoch Pratt, who made a fortune in shipping and railroads, donated books, buildings and the peculiar sum of $833,333.33 in cash to Baltimore in 1882 to start its free library system. From the 1940s through the '80s, Nettie B. Taylor propounded shared resources and a simpler chain of command. Baltimore County's Charles W. Robinson preached computerization in the 1960s.
As a result, the library community is well-organized and intimate, given its size. "It's great to be able to sit down with the other directors, talk, get to know each other and make plans," Baykan says.
Action and results
One of the first calls she made upon moving to Maryland was to Taylor, then in her 80s. The library legend gave Baykan "the political, geographical and professional lay of the land and a huge dose of inspiration," according to the Library Journal's January cover story.
Baykan's outgoing nature also made an impression. "My daughters say I'd talk to a lamppost," she says.
Weeks into her tenure, the chair of the legislative panel for the Maryland Library Association took a job out of state, and Baykan's colleagues named her to the post. She has held it most of the time since. Her knack for chatting up legislators started winning friends in both chambers and, by most accounts, hasn't stopped.
"She's warm and funny, with an infectious sense of humor," says Hixson. "That's crucial when you're selling ideas." Adds Lynn Wheeler, director of the Caroline County Public Library: "She's like Mickey Rooney in the old Andy Hardy movies; she has a gift for making things happen."
Baykan also knows how to build a campaign.
"We all know good stories about libraries," says Carla Hayden, director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. "Mary got some hard facts."
In 2003, she employed a more businesslike approach to the cause. She used a state grant to hire a Bethesda pollster, Potomac Inc., to survey Marylanders on their attitudes toward libraries. The findings were striking.
Respondents overwhelmingly saw libraries as fundamental to community health - more so than police stations, playgrounds or grade schools. Ninety percent of them had visited a library in the past year; 78 percent held library cards; 85 percent said libraries help people learn job skills; and more than half said libraries attract business to an area.
The survey "helped Mary show everyone, in and out of the field, that it's all about the pre-schooler, the job-seeker, the senior who needs a companion," Hayden says. "She got librarians fired up, built their confidence that the cause is worthy."
Librarians throughout the state took the results to political leaders and others to make the case that libraries are "win-win" propositions.
"We even asked whether visitors tend to go shopping [during] trips to the public library," Baykan says. "Most said they do. ... If a community is looking for sustainability, for economic revitalization, one of the best things a government can do to turn things around is put a public library in the middle of it."
In 2005, the General Assembly was persuaded, unanimously passing a bill that called for the largest-ever one-time increase in operating budgets: $1 per capita per year for the next four years. (That added $400,000 to the Baltimore County library budget in the first year alone.)
Last year, the body unanimously approved a grant for library physical projects for the first time, a $5 million capital fund to be divvied up for renovations and new buildings. To date, 17 of the state's jurisdictions have submitted proposals.
Not like the others
Ask John Berry, of Library Journal, about the Librarian of the Year selection process, and he'll tell you it's a bit mysterious, even to him. Scores of professionals around the country submit nominations, often unbeknownst to the nominees. In the end, Berry's staff seeks a librarian who has "advanced the profession."
Last December, when Berry reached Baykan by cell phone in a supermarket to tell her she'd been nominated for the award, she nearly dropped her grocery bags.
"This usually goes to someone at a major urban library," she says. "It's like that old skit on Sesame Street. Chicago ... San Francisco ... Seattle ... Hagerstown, Maryland. Which of these things just isn't the same?"
On Feb. 1, Maryland Library Day, the General Assembly saluted Baykan with a plaque and elegant rhetoric. That afternoon, she was back in the office, pressing for new funding.