Most of Anne Arundel County's 15 libraries opened before anyone thought about computer literacy — and four of them opened before astronauts walked on the moon.
Over a half-century, county residents have drastically changed the way they use libraries. They're not just about books anymore. Public computers, meeting space and study zones are the hot tickets, and the facilities are home to activities as diverse as antique car clubs and employment assistance services.
Library officials say it's clear that most of their facilities weren't designed for such uses, and are looking for ways to improve the system. Many locations have clumps of computer stations in the midst of a main room and no "quiet" room. Paperbacks — starting with the romances once deemed unworthy of shelf space — were an afterthought in planning half the county libraries but are now clustered in their own popular sections, which take up even more space.
Two library branches, in the West County and Crofton, are less than 10 years old. Another three are under 20 years old. And the oldest, the Annapolis branch that library officials would like to replace soonest, is 46 years old, according to dedication dates provided by the library system.
"We need to look at the whole system and how the community has grown over the years and what their needs are," said Hampton "Skip" Auld, library administrator.
Using a state grant of nearly $50,000, library officials recently hired a consultant to create a 20-year plan to determine where new buildings, renovations and additions are needed and what flexible-use spaces would accommodate the ever-changing demands of the county's population. The plan also has to consider what the county can afford.
A draft report, which will include information from three public forums, is expected to be ready in midautumn. The final version should be done at the end of the year, in time for budget preparations.
The idea, Auld said, is to go beyond what library officials already recognize, such as the fact that two of the three regional libraries — Annapolis and North County — aren't big enough.
"This will allow us over a 20-year time span to really rebuild and modernize the library system," Auld said.
"Buildings can no longer be looked at as sole-purpose facilities," said County Executive John R. Leopold, adding that a strategic plan for libraries will aid in other county planning, too.
He noted an award-winning partnership between the library and county Workforce Development Corp. that helps people with resumes and applications as they seek employment. Library officials said the program effectively doubled the number of workforce centers in the county to 12 and has worked with 2,000 people since October 2009.
So stiff is the competition among nonprofit organizations to reserve the meeting room for the coming year that at the Annapolis branch, the line starts forming before 6 a.m. on reservation day every October. The branch opens at 9 a.m.
"My husband goes there at 5 or 5:30 in the morning while I stay home with the kids until I can go," said Gina Pendry, who runs a monthly meeting of the La Leche League of Annapolis there. The nonprofit relies on free space in its mission to help mothers who breast-feed, and Pendry said her group likes its morning meeting time.
Jeff Scherer is a principal with the consultant conducting the study, Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, an architectural firm with locations in Minneapolis and Hyattsville that counts library renovation and building reuse among its specialties. He said most library systems are under the same pressures as Anne Arundel County's, as issues of intense and changing library use compete with tight budgets.
"How do we make the buildings more responsive to the immediate needs of the citizens, but also acknowledge that they are going to change over time? How can they be adapted and adjusted and revised?" he said. Another question is how changes in a community affect the library and vice versa, Scherer said.
The issues being studied include locations and services of library branches, parking and other immediate pressures, and how the county's libraries stack up to those in neighboring jurisdictions.
Three forums will be held next month for county residents to discuss the services they want and listen to competing viewpoints. "
"All citizens in the county define what libraries should be based on how they themselves use them," Scherer said, "so there is a huge variety in what people say a library is and how people should use them."
Community meetings on library plans:
Sept. 6 at the Annapolis Area Library, 1410 West St. 7 p.m.
Sept. 7 at the North County Area Library, 1010 Eastway, Glen Burnie. 7 p.m.
Sept. 8 at the West County Area Library, 1325 Annapolis Road, Odenton. 7 p.m.