Balto. Co. libraries embrace new technologies, adapt to demographics

Storyville, e-books, digital magazines, iPads for librarians part of evolution

August 07, 2013|By Pete Pichaske

Alaina Grubb, 31, wanted to do something stimulating and fun with her young niece and nephew the other day, so she took them to the county library in Woodlawn.

Seriously. The library.

Specifically, the Arbutus woman took Hayden Grubb, 5, and her 4-year-old brother Lincoln to Storyville, an elaborate, interactive, "magical town" designed for young children from newborns to 5-year-olds.

"It's great, a wonderful resource, and they love it," said Grubb, standing in the town's play kitchen watching Hayden arrange plastic pizza slices in a tray and Lincoln stack colorful dishes in a sink. "It gives them a chance to play with things they ordinarily wouldn't play with."

The Baltimore County Library has two Storyvilles, one in Woodlawn, the other at the Rosedale branch. Both are part children's museums, part state-of-the-art play areas and part traditional children's libraries.

Both also are a far cry from the small children's sections typical of public libraries in the past and, as such, are exhibits A and B in the county library system's efforts to keep up with an increasingly technology-minded, demographically changing county that expects a lot more from its library than a quiet place to read or check out printed books.

"More people are going to the public library for more things than ever before," said James Fish, director of the Baltimore County Library since 1996. "Our principles are the same, but in some cases how we go about delivering those services has changed. …

"We try to be responsive to the public. To be worthy of being a public library, you have to evolve."

Added Jeffrey Smith, president of the Baltimore County Library Foundation: "Public libraries need to make sure they remain relevant. They need to embrace the technologies available, not ignore them, and position the library as an information source, whether the information is in print or in bits and bytes."

 Storyville is only one example of the library system's evolution over the last several years. Others include:

• a rapidly expanding electronic data base, coupled with shrinking reference sections of printed materials;

•  access to 67,000 e-books and 22,000 audiobooks, and soaring interest in those resources (the number of e-books checked out last year nearly tripled over the previous year, although that was only 2 percent of all items borrowed);

• Zinio, a distribution service for digital magazines added this year, that allows library users to electronically access about 100 magazines;

• self-checkout on electronic scanners, now available in all branches and used in more than 90 percent of all checkouts;

• an enhanced summer reading program that this year served more than 50,000 children, a record high;

• I-Pads for staff members, which makes finding specific books or other materials easier; and,

• free customer access to 443 personal computers — including 70 at the county's newest and largest branch in Owings Mills — which combined attracted more than one million users last year. 

The New Town Hall

New technology is driving many changes in the system, but so, too, is a shift in the way libraries are viewed, according to some library officials. 

"The library as a destination has become more important than it used to be," Fish said, explaining that more and more people use libraries as a place to meet, to study in groups, for home-schooling and a lot more. 

County Council member David Marks, a Towson Republican and member of the library foundation board, likened libraries to town halls, He called the Perry Hall branch, for example, "the hub of the community."

"The technology part is important, but I don't know if we'll ever get to the point where we want to get rid of the physical presence of the libraries," Marks said. "It's much more than just a place to pick up books. … It's more and more a place for social interaction."

The Owings Mills branch, which opened in March, caters to that philosophy: It has an array of meeting rooms and study areas, including a large community meeting room that can be divided into three areas and another large study area on the third floor. It also has a café.

The system also has bought into that philosophy of encouraging social interaction with a growing number of programs and classes. Among the recent offerings on the system's website, were programs in magic, sign language storytelling, Latin American music and an animal program that featured live animals. Other offerings included yoga classes for babies and toddlers, beading and kalimba music classes for children, and, for adults, lectures on energy conservation and gardening, and a small business counseling session. 

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