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A library for the future [Commentary]

Drive down Seventh Street and just try to take your eyes off the new Laurel Branch Library. Its enormous, glistening windows practically beckon you to visit, while the slant of its roof suggests a futuristic aircraft ready to soar. It's not quite the spaced-out flying saucer entrance at the Hyattsville Branch but extremely impressive nonetheless.

Years in the making and often delayed, the new 31,000-square-foot facility has the potential to become one of the prime hubs of the Laurel community. The approximately $14 million it cost looks exceedingly well spent – positively magical in the Children's Room – and speaks to the evolution of the definition of a library.

The first thing you notice upon entry are the majestically high ceilings and a sense of welcoming spaciousness. Gone are the claustrophobic corridors of 82-inch-tall bookshelves that required a step stool or ladder to reach something up high. The tallest shelves now top out at 60 inches and are even lower in the Children's Room.

Kathleen Teaze, CEO of the Prince George's County Memorial Library System, said the new building will have 70 percent of the books of the library it replaced.

The county government slashed the library book budget by 40 percent in 2008, during the height of the recession, and it never recovered, Teaze said. Already there have been complaints voiced, particularly by older patrons, about the way the new library provides access to books and information. Many people still prefer to work with hard copy, to hold things with pages in their hands. Teaze, however, points out the books removed from the shelves were those no one had checked out for years and years.

"We have plenty of books," she said. "The beauty of having a library system is people can request materials from any branch and have them delivered to the branch they want."

CDs and DVDs with music, film and documentaries continue to be shelved, as do 120 print magazines and 10 newspaper titles, but Teaze sees them also eventually being phased out in a paradigm shift away from physical media.

"Our feeling is that we need to put our resources in the places needed most," Teaze said.

A survey of 15,000 library patrons found books were low on the needs of what the library should provide, Teaze said.

So, now, in the new building there are 53 computer stations available capable of tapping into myriad specialized reference and research databases that would be almost impossible to traverse outside of a library or university. There are study rooms and conference rooms that can be used for meetings and tutorials. There are expanded digital services for adults and children as well as a growing suite of events and programs.

"We're more about being more actively involved in people's lifelong education, not just checking out books," Teaze said. "We have more people coming than ever, despite the fact that we have less money for books. People are very surprised when you show them what's available. They think we're just about books, and it's an imprint you develop early in your lives you have to get over."

The new library is flat-out gorgeous. While change can be difficult, care has been taken to strike the right balance between physical and digital media. We celebrate the bold vision and desire to meet the needs of residents looking toward the future. If you need help in there, ask for it.

The new library belongs to the entire community. Use it well.

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