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Libraries will always be the place to be [Commentary]

As your stereotypical bookworm-y kid, I used to love going to the library growing up. In elementary school, I checked out so many books that I had to set a limit just so I wouldn't be overwhelmed carrying them all and they wouldn't take up a ton of space in my room.

I think the limit I set was 20, which sounds insane today. Adults never seem to read as much as little kids, even ones who are still pretty voracious readers.

As far as I can remember, the library was always a popular place to be, and, as my editor Allan Vought recently noted, they still are. Harford County's branches have gotten more than 1.8 million walk-in visits this fiscal year, according to his article.

Library computer stations are generally the new centers of attention there, but people are nevertheless continuing to check out books at a good clip in Harford, library director Mary Hastler said.

At the Bel Air library, the most popular branch, 1.06 million books were checked out this past year, Hastler's annual report noted.

It's not terribly obvious, though, why libraries should attract so many people. Reading isn't necessarily "popular" or "cool," and libraries in popular culture are usually portrayed as places for eggheads or for people bogged down in boring school assignments.

But that's not true at all, is it? Libraries are usually teeming with people reading to kids, perusing magazines, searching the Internet, playing games, killing time after school, checking out books, listening to speakers or going to special events.

If you want to prove this, try messing with a library's hours or schedule.

Plenty of other buildings that are arguably more necessary could close without a sound. Want to shut down a major county building, even the county council chambers? A handful of dedicated citizens may protest, but most people probably wouldn't care.

Want to relocate a water treatment plant? Go right ahead.

But try to close a library branch? You might have a riot on your hands. People are very attached to their libraries.

I think media outlets like this paper are actually a lot like libraries, on a smaller scale. They're both supposedly places to get information, or to read something interesting or fun. In reality, though, people use them as a way to hang out and spend time. They ultimately become community spaces (hence online message boards, social media and the persistence of letters to the editor). For better or worse, people get passionate about them. And they're run by people who know how to find things.

I got a chance to try my hand at this several years ago when I shadowed some librarians at Anne Arundel County Public Library, where my dad has worked for many years.

I followed them around for a day, ending up at the information desk, where the librarian gave me a brief overview on doing research and let me loose (sort of).

I remember sitting at the desk, pretending to be a real librarian. I was equipped with databases, search engines, telephones, you name it. I felt ready to solve any problem, answer any obscure question these customers could throw at me.

Eventually a little girl walked up to the desk.

"Do you have any books about Africa?" she asked very seriously, then added exuberantly: "I just LOVE Africa!"

It was totally adorable, but I suddenly felt overwhelmed. Books about Africa? We had tons of them, but was she interested in a specific country? African cultures, languages, history, what? The little girl didn't know.

I didn't know where to begin, so the real librarian had to rescue me.

Being a librarian turned out to be harder than I thought. But the little girl who "just love[d] Africa" encapsulated, for me, what libraries are all about.

As long as we're living in the Information Age, libraries will continue to be the place to be, no matter who you are or what fascinates you.

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