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.
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.
The Baltimore County Library was ranked ninth in the nation for its population category in the most recent Hennen's Public Library Ratings, and fourth in the state, behind Carroll, Harford and Howard counties.
Hennen's rates libraries based on 15 criteria, including funding level, staff size, number of periodicals, visits and circulation.
While not a direct response to changing technology or demographics, Storyville is certainly a response to the latest research on what best helps young children learn and read, and a perceived community need for that service.
The Storyvilles are stocked with the latest and best children's books and plenty of places where adults and children can sit down together to read, as well as state-of-the-art play areas. Each includes play stores, houses and other rooms, and each of those areas has age-appropriate and theme-appropriate toys.
Some 360,000 adults and children visited the Rosedale Storyville during its first five years, library officials said, and about 6,000 a month visit the Woodlawn Storyville.
"This has become the go-to place for early childhood needs," said Marisa Conner, the system's Youth Services Coordinator and a leading force behind Storyville. "We really filled a niche."
Librarians and teachers from as far away as Denmark and Canada have come to look at the county's Storyvilles, with an eye to replicating them.
The parents and children who show up often come from far away as well. On a recent weekday, Elkanah Werther, wife Devorah, and their sons Yosef, 3, and Isaac, 1, traveled to the Rosedale Storyville from their home in Lakewood, N.J., after hearing about it from a cousin who lives in the county.
They spent a lot of time in Toddler Bay, a Bay-themed room stocked with a mini-lighthouse, tidal pool boxes and plastic crabs.
"There's nothing like this in New Jersey," Elkanah said, "at least not near us. We love it, and the main thing is, the kids love it."
"It's hard to find things educational and fun, and this has that," Devorah said. "It's just fun and family-oriented. .. And in a library."
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun