When Howard County unveils its new 63,000-square-foot library in December, patrons will be welcomed into a high-tech facility with a computer classroom and a historical center. Officials also plan a garden that they envision will be charming enough for weddings.
Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library system will this month open its first small eatery in a neighborhood branch, where people can snack on fresh pastries, sandwiches or coffee while they use the library's wi-fi.
Far from the stuffy, silent archives of old, today's libraries are inviting patrons to come often and linger, have a snack and meet with friends. As they build new spaces or renovate old ones, officials are responding to patrons' changing needs by adding tech-savvy features, providing food and drinks and reconsidering how people use library spaces.
Anne Arundel County library officials are holding public forums to learn what residents want in their library system.
"Creating those desirable spaces is very much what libraries are doing now," said Molly Raphael, president of the American Library Association. "We have kind of opened our eyes to how people run their lives.
"If people take books home and sit at their kitchen table and read books there with a cup of coffee, why shouldn't they do that at the library?" she said.
In Baltimore, the Southeast Anchor branch, the newest in the Enoch Pratt Free Library system, will soon get a David & Dad's cafe. When the branch was built in 2007, officials considered the popularity of coffee shops in bookstores and other libraries, and designed the library with that in mind.
With growing demand for places to meet, the idea of a single multipurpose room is giving way to spaces that can be reconfigured into several rooms and used for a variety of community purposes — library programs, seminars, job assistance, flu shot clinics and neighborhood meetings.
Howard County's new Miller branch in Ellicott City includes a 3,000-square-foot meeting room — big enough to host the literacy program's graduation and awards ceremony as well as student competitions, but that can also be divided into three spaces.
As Anne Arundel County looks forward, officials say they anticipate clamoring for more meeting rooms. They are at such a premium that at the county's Annapolis branch, on the annual day designated for reserving the single meeting space, a line often forms three hours before the branch opens.
"If you get there early enough, you can get most of your dates," said Peter Klein, president of Corvette Annapolis, who arrived late last year but was still able to reserve two-thirds of his car club's meeting dates. At least half the club's 82 members typically turn out for meetings, he said, making meeting at the library preferable to squeezing into a member's living room.
But as libraries evolve from being hushed places, people still want noiseless enclaves for tutoring or studying, or even small business meetings. The new Howard County branch will have nine such "quiet rooms."
Libraries are also trying to appeal to specific patrons, some by creating "teen zones" with collaborative studying in mind, and interactive preschool areas designed to stimulate the youngest in the library, like Storyville in Baltimore County.
At the Perry Hall branch in August, Baltimore County Public Library officially launched a program to lend Playaway Views — portable, pre-loaded video players that feature educational programs for children.
"My son just loves them and really enjoys the stories," said Idah Mlambo of Perry Hall, who visits the branch with her 2-year-old about twice a week. "I like them because there is a lot of activity and singing. He is not just sitting there watching."
The durable devices, designed to withstand any damage a preschooler might inflict, feature a 31/2-inch, full-color screen with a shatter-resistant cover.
"We have been circulating them for a few months throughout the branches and have not had any reports of breakages," said librarian Roxane Gnau.
For older patrons, the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore recently announced that it would be lending 28 Barnes & Noble Nooks that have been preloaded with 22 fiction and nonfiction best-sellers, classics and children's favorites at no charge from two branches. Anne Arundel County plans to buy preloaded e-readers this fall to lend to patrons.
In addition to providing new technology and adding more public computers, libraries want to make sure that patrons have room to bring their own by adding more desks and electrical outlets.
Officials are also considering how people live outside the library's walls.
In what its director said may be the first among state public libraries, Charles County's library system added electric vehicle charging stations at two branches in August. It will locate a third at the West Waldorf branch that will open next summer.
The libraries were a "natural place" for three of the five charging stations the county is establishing because people "come here and stay awhile," said Emily Ferron, the director.
Sometimes patrons don't want to leave their cars. Carroll County added drive-up windows at two branches for returns and pick-ups. Baltimore County has included drive-up windows as well.
But whether by location or design, libraries are trying to be more convenient to the communities they serve.
"We want people to come into the branches, enjoy the experience, stay and linger, enjoy our materials, participate in our classes, and then we want them to come to our events," said Valerie J. Gross, president and chief operating officer of Howard County's libraries.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun