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Howard County library expands access to free online education tools

Columbia, MD -- Valerie Gross, President and CEO of Howard County Library System.
Columbia, MD -- Valerie Gross, President and CEO of Howard County Library System. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

The Howard County Library System took several big steps in electronic programming over the past month, including becoming the first public library system in Maryland to offer a free education catalog of 3,600 streaming video classes and 150,000 tutorials.

On Wednesday, the library system launched the last of four new electronic services that combine to offer digital versions of more than 4,000 international newspapers and magazines, 80 language classes, and custom-tailored children's book recommendations emailed weekly to parents.

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The new services — which can be accessed with a county library card at hclibrary.org under the heading "HCLS NOW!" — have been unrolling at a pace of nearly one per week since July 1.

"We are looking to be cutting edge and state of the art," said Valerie Gross, president and CEO of the library system. "We weave these purchases into our operating budget as we look at use versus investment and phase other programs out."

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On July 15, the system was the first in Maryland to become a paid subscriber to lyndaLibrary, a collection of online courses offering business, technical and creative skills instruction.

The service — which can be accessed at the library or from home — is offered free through libraries by online learning company lynda.com. It is otherwise available to subscribers for a monthly fee.

The other services launched in July are: Beanstack, which recommends one children's book weekly to parents based on their child's interests and reading level; PressReader, which offers digital replicas of international newspapers and magazines from 100 countries in 60 languages and also translates articles; and Pronunciator, which teaches 80 of the world's most popular languages and offers classes for non-English speakers in 50 languages.

"Our customers are looking to get ahead in their career, business or school and they want more content," said Kim Montenyohl, who joined the Howard County system four months ago as an e-curriculum specialist and data analyst. "It's a knowledge-based economy and there's a constant need to retool and learn more.

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Deanna Grady, director of government sales for California-based lynda.com, said Howard County is the first library subscriber in Maryland, though Anne Arundel County will follow closely behind with a launch date this month, she said.

"We currently have a half-dozen Maryland counties looking to come on board," she said of the service, which has been offered since September.

Gross said many of the library system's Asian customers have expressed interest in reading Shanghai Daily, and that similar requests by other groups for access to international newspapers led the library to sign up for PressReader.

Pronunciator holds special appeal to the county's large foreign-born population because "it teaches oral and written skills in your home language," she said.

Illana Bittner, who co-owns a video and Web development company in Owen Brown, is thrilled that the entire inventory of lynda.com is available to cardholders at no cost.

"We've used [the online video tutorials] for years with our high school interns each summer," she said. "It's the first place we send them to learn the tools that we use on the job."

Bittner also said her 9-year-old son, Jack, enjoys reading National Geographic Kids on the library's website.

"Our county library is so much more than books, and that [operating philosophy] broadens our world vastly," she said.

The new programs augment a collection of existing online services that are still widely used, Gross said, noting that 10 percent of the 7.3 million items borrowed in fiscal year 2015 were online content.

Two language instruction sites — Mango and Little Pim, for adults and kids, respectively — remain popular, she said.

Freegal Music permits a user to stream up to three hours of music a day and to download three songs per week from a catalog of more than 9 million songs. There are also four services available through the library website for downloading e-books, e-audio books, e-comics, albums and videos.

Ellen Flynn Giles, a member of the county Board of Education, praised the library system for its "concerted efforts to open more avenues to access for everyone."

The county's public schools system and Howard Community College are well served by their partnership with the library, she said.

"The library system continues to look at more interactive uses and that's innovative," Giles said. Smart programming choices cross demographic boundaries "and they not only open doors for a child, they improve families."

Gross said HCLS will continue to evolve toward more online content, but not in an effort to replace the branches' many on-site programs and activities.

"We even teach classes — in person — to show you how to use apps," she said. "There is still a desire as human beings to exchange ideas personally. Nothing replaces human interaction."

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