In the abbreviated parlance of online new-speak, the three letters "irl" serve as a somewhat cynical stand-in name for a place that sometimes seems secondary to the World Wide Web. For those not already up to speed, irl is short for "in real life."
Predictions made over the past two decades since the emergence of the Internet as the preeminent electronic communications platform anticipated the end of what were referred to by the computer set nostalgically as "bricks and mortar" stores, even as such stores were still in operation and thriving.
Lately, though the Internet and its many technological overlays – email, the Web, Facebook, Twitter and any number of other more focused forums, such as Tumblr – are as popular and useful as ever, they have been found to have limitations. While there's a lot that can be done online, it is not possible to download a pizza or truly experience the vistas afforded by a simple walk in the park or the more complex challenge of climbing to the top of one of the world's great peaks.
Turns out, some things just have to be experienced in real life.
To what degree is this true? If Harford County public libraries are any indication, then to a very high degree. Arguably, the Internet and a given public library system are on equal footing when it comes to one very important function: the dissemination of information to the general public. Even as people in Harford County are well-acquainted with the various kinds of information available through the Internet, the bricks and mortar library branches in Harford County have remained as popular as ever. In the year that ended June 30, the 11 public library branches in Harford County logged 1.8 million walk-in visits, which is roughly on par with the total for the previous year.
That comes out to an average of about seven walk-in visits per year per county resident (even those too young to walk). More astonishing, however, is that the library system's website had 10.9 million visitors (not irl, for those keeping score). That shakes out to more than 43 website visits per person per year in Harford County. It's very likely that the library system's website traffic and its walk-in traffic are integrally linked. Since the advent of networked computers – even when the World Wide Web was regarded simply as an interesting part of the Internet and not its primary interactive platform – the library system was keeping up with technology. A generation of adults has come of age without ever having had the tedious experience of trying to find a book using a card catalog. Turning those old banks of wooden and metal drawers into computer database files not only made searching for books easier, it also opened up substantial space in the library buildings and paved the way for perusing a library's holdings without ever having to visit.
Want to borrow a book for research, an academic assignment or simple pleasure? Visit the library website and look for the book from the comfort of home. It's at a neighboring branch? Fine, put in a request to have it moved to the local branch and it'll be there in a few days. It's at another public library branch in Maryland? There's a good chance it can be transferred and checked out at the branch closest to home. What had been a time consuming process before computers, has become a breeze after digitalization.
And that ease of use made possible by computers is likely a key reason why bricks and mortar libraries remain some of the busiest public buildings in Harford County. Other reasons for the popularity of libraries are, no doubt, the many organized programs ranging from things with names like "Babies Love Books," to offerings for the more seasoned among us on subjects like gardening.
The library system also is a bargain in Harford County, as it consumes just about 3 percent of the county government's overall operating budget.
Even as computer connectivity has become the standard by which many things are judged — especially things whose mission is to provide information — Harford County public libraries have shown that it is vital to be both plugged into the latest in technology and kept abreast of what's happening in real life.