Is library of future coming to Arundel?


A BATTLE between two towns has shed some welcome attention on the county's public libraries.

Here's the dispute: The town of Crofton is enraged that County Executive Janet S. Owens decided not to replace their existing library branch until the year 2004, opting instead to provide design money for a regional library in neighboring Odenton.

A long-time squabble

The library fight has been going on for years. County officials had identified a need for bigger and better libraries in both communities. But it was clear all along that one would get the prize first. And the fear is that the loser might never get its library replaced.

So you can understand Crofton's anger and anxiety about playing second banana to its northern neighbor in Ms. Owens' budget proposal for the next fiscal year. The year 2004 sounds like 3004, although the county executive insists that isn't so."It's possible, depending upon the county's position, to construct the two libraries at the same time," she said in her budget address. "Nothing would please me more. But I cannot commit to that course of action at this time. We do need both libraries. They are essential for both communities served. And both will be built."

Both communities need a library, but the branch in Odenton is so small that it is almost useless in that rapidly growing town that is easily accessible to most of western Anne Arundel. It makes sense for Ms. Owens to push for a regional library there.

More change ahead?

But there's something important beyond that debate. Ms. Owens said in her budget message -- as she said to me weeks ago -- that libraries are changing. New facilities must be designed to accommodate the way people will search for educational and entertainment resources today and tomorrow."We do not want to build anything that will soon be obsolete," she said in her budget message.

Interesting thought.

Can libraries really change very much? Should they? Over the years we've seen shelves of texts and stacks of newspapers and periodicals joined by record players and phonographs, then audiocassettes and videotapes and then computers with high-speed Internet access. Some resources that once were the domain of libraries can be accessed from home over the Web.

Is another revolutionary development on the horizon that will affect the way we search for information?

The Odenton branch, if approved by the County Council, would be the largest of the county's three regional locations. Ms. Owens' fiscal 2001 budget includes money for a new design.

How should it be designed?

Your chance to speak

Here's a chance to give your views, dear readers. In our inaugural Question of the Month for Anne Arundel County, we ask your thoughts on what a regional library of the 21st century should look like.(The Question of the Month will seek your thoughts on local topics. This is our weekly interactive page where you can write letters to the editor about the monthly question or other current issues on government, communities and business. The gray box on this page tells how you can send your submissions.)

We'd also like to know your thoughts on how the county's library system works. Do you usually find what you're looking for? Does the county spend enough? Per capita spending is far behind Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Harford counties.

Room to grow

A survey by the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College this year found that residents believe libraries are the best bargain in government. That's not hard to believe, but there are shortcomings.

My first trip to a county library was futile. Using the Internet, I looked in the card catalogue to find the classic book "Mis-education of the Negro." A copy was available at the Mountain Road branch. I went there on a rainy Wednesday evening to retrieve the book, but I neglected to do one important thing: check the hours of operation.

The branch closes at 5 p.m. on Wednesdays.

The two current regional branches -- Annapolis and Glen Burnie -- have longer hours, but what more should they have?

These questions are not foremost in the minds of Crofton residents, whose objective, no doubt, is to put their library plans back on the fast track. But if the County Council approves Ms. Owens' budget proposal, the Odenton regional branch will be important to them, too. What would make a regional branch in Odenton worth the drive?

Norris West writes editorials for The Sun from Anne Arundel County.

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