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.
The growth in popularity of library programs has far outstripped most other library services. In the past 10 years, the number of people attending library programs more than doubled, from 92,567 to 210,580, according to library figures. During the same time period, the number of visitors rose 31 percent, the number of items borrowed rose 11 percent and the number of informational questions answered actually decreased by about 25 percent.
And then there are changing demographics. From 2000 to 2010, the percentage of blacks in the county jumped from 20 to 26, Asian residents from 3.2 to 5, and Latinos from 1.8 to 4 percent. In addition, the number of residents whose native tongue is not English has risen.
Those changes, library leaders say, have prompted them to tweak services — add more foreign language books, for example, and implement children's story times in foreign languages.
"We have a lot more languages, and a much greater variety of races than we saw 25 years ago," Fish said. "We have to find materials and services to serve those populations."
The library has more than 13,000 books in three world languages — Korean, Russian and Spanish — and, according to library foundation president Smith, uses census numbers to make sure those books are in the most appropriate branches. For example, the Pikesville branch, with its large Russian emigrant population nearby, has the bulk of the Russian-language books.
On top of racial and ethnic changes, Fish noted, Baltimore County has a higher proportion of elderly residents than any major county in the state.
To serve that population, he said, the county uses bookmobiles to reach seniors who might have difficulty getting to their local library and a growing number of basic computer classes. "A lot of seniors need to learn to use the Internet to communicate with their grandchildren," he said. "Almost every branch has some sort of class in that now."
Challenges not unique
What's happening with the Baltimore County Library is not unique. Across the country, libraries are evolving in sometimes dramatic ways as they adapt to new technologies and changing demands — in some cases, amid severe budget cuts.
"It's an interesting time for libraries," said Barbara Stripling, president of the American Library Association. "A time both of challenges and of amazing opportunities.
Besides meeting the demand for the latest in technology, libraries also are being asked to serve as community centers, Stripling said.
"There's a huge emphasis on community engagement," she said, including, for example, providing meeting space (and sometimes organizing meetings on local issues) and offering classes and lectures on everything from crafts to how to find a job.
The county library's budget has fared better than some jurisdictions: For the past several years, funding for the system has increased, if sometimes only modestly.
Marks said the past two county executives, and the council, have made library funding a priority, even in tough economic times.
They've been helped by the library foundation, which provides funding for what could be considered extra amenities. For example, the foundation covered the entire $700,000 cost of the Rosedale Storyville five years ago and 20 percent of the $1.25 million cost of the Woodlawn Storyville, which opened in March 2010.
County and library leaders say their system is weathering challenges and evolving to meet changed demands better than many libraries, and at least one source supports that contention.