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.
Some 7,000 people attended the Dec. 17 opening of the library, prompting County Executive Ken Ulman to crow, "How many places in this country need police directing traffic at the opening of a library?"
Of course, there have been reductions at the library as well.
Because of the online resources available to just about everyone now, the county library now stocks far fewer magazines and periodicals, and no encyclopedias at all.
'A time of real challenges'
What's happening with the Howard County Library is not unique. Across the country, libraries are adapting to new technologies, changing demographics and more.
"This is a time of real challenges for libraries," said Maureen Sullivan, president of the American Library Association. Among the main challenges, she said, are an increasingly digital world; a financial downturn that has forced many governments to cut library funding; an assumption by some people that because of increasing availability of digital content, libraries are no longer needed; and, an increasingly diverse population that wants something different from libraries.
To deal with the challenges, Sullivan said, libraries "must make sure that people have access and that they can read in the way they want to read," including both print and digital books.
In addition, she said, "libraries are turning outward to understand communities. They are using some really innovative approaches to serve all ages of their community."
For example, she said, libraries are setting aside more space for nontraditional library activities, such as community meetings and teaching crafts.
Sullivan, who lives in Annapolis, lauded Howard County's efforts to meet those challenges, citing, among other things, the new Miller Branch with its spacious meeting rooms.
The county library "is very well-regarded nationally," Sullivan said. "They have one of the finest library leaders in that system. … Valerie Gross is outstanding — very focused on engaging staff to provide whatever customer services are needed."
Indeed, the Howard County Library was ranked tops in Maryland in the most recent Hennen's American Public Library Ratings and fourth in the nation for its population category.
Hennen's rates libraries based on 15 criteria, including funding level, staff size, number of periodicals, visits and circulation.
The county library has had at least one advantage: generous funding. While many other systems, as Sullivan noted, had their budgets slashed or at least not increased, Howard's weathered the recession relatively unscathed. Funding was trimmed slightly in fiscal years 2010 and 2011, but levels soared the following two years, and government spending on the system is now higher than ever.
"The county executive and County Council have been very supportive of our entire curriculum," Gross said.
Hungry for technology
County residents can expect more changes from their library. Some, as Gross alluded to, will depend on still-unknown new technologies or needs. Others are already planned.
HiTech, for example, will be expanded. Launched in January 2012 with the help of a $100,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the program has proven both popular, attracting nearly 1,500 teens, and productive, according to Angela Brade, the library system's chief operating officer.
"The kids are hungry for this technology," Brade said. "And we want them to have the high-tech skills they need."
At HiTech classes, Brade said, the students aren't just playing with technology, though that in itself is important. They're also producing something, whether it's a song, a fashion portfolio or, in one case, a mobile phone game.
The game, "Escape! from Detention," was created, designed and built by a group of youth ages 11-14 with the help of a Baltimore web development agency, Mindgrub Technologies.
Released just recently, the game had 2,500 downloads its first week.
"The kids love it," Brade said. "It's a popular app."
HiTech classes are expected to be added at the East Columbia branch in June and, at a later date, at the Central Branch in Columbia and possibly the Glenwood Branch.
Meanwhile, a $5.3 million renovation at the Savage branch, expected to begin in July, will expand the program there, adding a new sound room.
And more changes are sure to come.
"We get ideas from the business world, we get ideas from the academic world," said Gross, who has run the libraries since July 2001. Other ideas, such as the BumbleBee spelling competition, came from the staff. "We have a creative, wonderful team," Gross said.
Gross has no doubt about the relevance — the absolute necessity — of libraries. Even in the midst of the ever-growing digital revolution, she said, people need guides to help them stay abreast of the changes.
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"Some people are going to say, 'Why do you need libraries?' " she said. "You might as well ask, 'Why do you need schools?' "