Visitors to the Howard County Library's Savage branch on a recent weekday might have come away confused. In one room, Rock Band 3, the interactive gaming platform, was playing John Lennon's "Imagine" on a giant video screen while 12-year-old Edward Oberlton followed along on the drums and his 16-year-old brother, Benjamin Oberlton, played the keyboard.
"This really helps me learn songs and it's a lot more fun than looking at notes," said Benjamin, as the song ended and he switched to the guitar. "And now, all of a sudden, I'm learning how to play the guitar!"
Down the hall in another room, 13-year-old Journee' McMillan and seven other teenage girls were sitting around a table, watching a digital display of colors and clothing styles on an equally large video screen and listening to Howard High School design teacher Achint Kaur talk to them about fashion. When they were done, they paged through glossy fashion magazines, tearing out photos of outfits they liked, preparing to compile their very own fashion portfolio.
"I love fashion — a lot," Journee' said, as her stack of photos of stylish models and movie stars grew. "This is really fun."
This clearly is not your grandmother's library.
The Oberlton brothers and Journee' were participating in HiTech, a free, after-school digital learning lab for youngsters 11 through 18.
Launched about a year ago, HiTech is one of a growing number of programs, classes, seminars and competitions that have altered the look and the feel — though not the mission — of the Howard County Library.
"Our vision is timeless. Like the public schools … we provide opportunities and education for everyone," said system president and CEO Valerie Gross. "But our delivery is different, and might be different (in the future). Who knows what might be around in 100 years?"
And who knew what was in store for the libraries 10 years ago?
In the past decade, the number of items borrowed each year from the Howard library's six branches has doubled, and the number of visits has tripled, as has the number of people attending library-sponsored classes.
At the same time, the library system, which will hold its largest fundraiser — "Evening in the Stacks" — on Saturday, Feb.23 has launched or expanded an array of programs aimed at taking advantage of new technology and giving county residents what they want in a fast-changing world. Besides HiTech, those programs and services include:
• the much-publicized Choose Civility campaign urging civil behavior;
• the Battle of the Books program that encourages fifth-graders to read by sponsoring costumed competitions;
• the BumbleBee competition for first- through third-graders and the national Spelling Bee for older students;
• adding 50,000 digital books to its collections;
• a temporary Nook borrowing program to introduce e-readers to county residents;
• a festival celebrating South Asian culture that will be part of a continuing series focused on various cultures.
To accommodate an increasingly diverse population, the system now carries about 42,000 books, films and other materials in 20 different languages, the largest number in Chinese, Korean and Spanish, according to spokeswoman Christie Lassen. The library's Project Literacy adult education initiative teaches basic life skills to about 400 students each year, she added.
In December 2011, the county opened a new Miller branch in Ellicott City, a state-of-the-art, $29-million facility that includes a 3,000-square-foot meeting room, a children's classroom, a tech lab and nine quiet study areas.
Outside, the library features an outdoor education environment, known as the "Enchanted Garden," that features classes, community garden beds and nutrition and health information.