HAGERSTOWN-- --On her first day as new director of the Washington County Free Library, Mary Baykan learned the state had rolled Internet cable "right into the back door" of the place.
It was 1995, and the system was slowly making its way into Western Maryland. Nobody knew much about the newfangled thing. The connection lay dormant.
"Turn it on," Baykan said.
With that simple act, Baykan (pronounced "Bye-can") activated a new era and signaled the approach that would turn her into a state and national force in the world of libraries.
"Sometimes, you have to see what you've got and make the best use of it," says Baykan, who was chosen in January as the 2006 national Librarian of the Year by Library Journal, the industry's top trade publication. The honor came not just for her work in transforming the Washington County system, but also for library appropriations bills she has helped shepherd through the General Assembly during the past two years.
"The public is making so many new demands on libraries today, all of them legitimate," says Jim Fish, director of the Baltimore County Public Library in Towson. "They need dollars, and Mary has certainly gotten results."
According to colleagues and lawmakers, Baykan blends strong research, creativity and a down-home approach into a potent argument: that libraries, far from being anachronisms in a digital world, are latent powerhouses of change, as ready for activation as so many unused cables.
"She presents her case very powerfully," says state Del. Sheila E. Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee. "She has certainly proven to me that libraries are beyond just books."
Baykan says, "In the 21st century ... libraries aren't just passive repositories ... and librarians aren't just those little old ladies who say 'shhhh!' We're people on a mission."
More than 137,000 librarians work at roughly 30,000 libraries in the United States. What set Baykan apart, says John Berry, editor-at-large of Library Journal, was her accomplishments on two levels - shaping a rural community while having a major impact statewide.
When Baykan arrived in Washington County, its commissioners hadn't built a new library in a century. At Washington County Free Library's central branch, a third of the light fixtures were burned out, and funding in general had flatlined. Today, the county has two new branches with a third on the way. The central library, with an annual budget of $4 million, offers e-mail service, round-the-clock online interaction with reference librarians and digital access to databases worldwide.
A visit to downtown Hagerstown offers a glimpse into Baykan's impact. On the first floor of the central library, teens and senior citizens check out books and DVDs. A grandma tows three girls to a bank of computers. They're a few of the 350,000 or so who visit the central library each year, a sharp increase from a decade earlier.
"At a time when so many forces are pulling us apart in society, the public library is still a place of community," Baykan says.
'A noble calling'
Her second-floor office, roomy and cheerfully cluttered, reinforces the point. In 1905, a predecessor of hers, a librarian named Mary Titcomb, invented the bookmobile in Washington County. A horse-and-buggy model in a glass case recalls the period.
"If the man can't go to the book," she quotes Titcomb as saying, "the book must go to the man."
A framed print shows "Pack Horse Librarians" of the 1930s loading up saddlebags. After the Great Depression, as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, librarians on horseback took books and periodicals to the remote hollows and hills of Eastern Kentucky.
"In America," Baykan says, "everyone has a right to information."
She learned that herself not long after college. A political science major at the University of Houston, she took a job on a reference desk as a possible bridge to law school, but the work inspired thoughts of a different sort of public service.
Young and old alike brought questions. One woman wanted books so she could learn why her daughter hated her. Sick folks, some of them frightened, needed medical texts. One preteen boy asked for a map of the Uncharted Territories.
The reference questions "could be silly, poignant or matters of life and death," Baykan says. "Every day was something you couldn't see coming. But information was vital. This seemed like a noble calling."
Americans were the first people, she says, to enjoy public libraries as a matter of course. From Benjamin Franklin, who pooled resources with friends in 1731 to establish what many call the first public library, the Library Company of Philadelphia, to later pioneers like Titcomb, American librarians have brought a service that goes to the heart of liberty.
"When totalitarians take over a country, what's their first instinct?" Baykan says. "To burn books, to close libraries and printing presses. Access to information is nothing less than the basis of a free society."
Compared with that of most states, Maryland's library system is a model of comity. Some have hundreds of libraries under a dizzying array of jurisdictions. Here, each of the 23 counties and Baltimore City has a regional system with a central branch. All are part of the State Department of Education.
A lineage of impassioned librarians helped shape the system. Enoch Pratt, who made a fortune in shipping and railroads, donated books, buildings and the peculiar sum of $833,333.33 in cash to Baltimore in 1882 to start its free library system. From the 1940s through the '80s, Nettie B. Taylor propounded shared resources and a simpler chain of command. Baltimore County's Charles W. Robinson preached computerization in the 1960s.
As a result, the library community is well-organized and intimate, given its size. "It's great to be able to sit down with the other directors, talk, get to know each other and make plans," Baykan says.
Action and results
One of the first calls she made upon moving to Maryland was to Taylor, then in her 80s. The library legend gave Baykan "the political, geographical and professional lay of the land and a huge dose of inspiration," according to the Library Journal's January cover story.
Baykan's outgoing nature also made an impression. "My daughters say I'd talk to a lamppost," she says.
Weeks into her tenure, the chair of the legislative panel for the Maryland Library Association took a job out of state, and Baykan's colleagues named her to the post. She has held it most of the time since. Her knack for chatting up legislators started winning friends in both chambers and, by most accounts, hasn't stopped.
"She's warm and funny, with an infectious sense of humor," says Hixson. "That's crucial when you're selling ideas." Adds Lynn Wheeler, director of the Caroline County Public Library: "She's like Mickey Rooney in the old Andy Hardy movies; she has a gift for making things happen."
Baykan also knows how to build a campaign.
"We all know good stories about libraries," says Carla Hayden, director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. "Mary got some hard facts."
In 2003, she employed a more businesslike approach to the cause. She used a state grant to hire a Bethesda pollster, Potomac Inc., to survey Marylanders on their attitudes toward libraries. The findings were striking.
Respondents overwhelmingly saw libraries as fundamental to community health - more so than police stations, playgrounds or grade schools. Ninety percent of them had visited a library in the past year; 78 percent held library cards; 85 percent said libraries help people learn job skills; and more than half said libraries attract business to an area.
The survey "helped Mary show everyone, in and out of the field, that it's all about the pre-schooler, the job-seeker, the senior who needs a companion," Hayden says. "She got librarians fired up, built their confidence that the cause is worthy."
Librarians throughout the state took the results to political leaders and others to make the case that libraries are "win-win" propositions.
"We even asked whether visitors tend to go shopping [during] trips to the public library," Baykan says. "Most said they do. ... If a community is looking for sustainability, for economic revitalization, one of the best things a government can do to turn things around is put a public library in the middle of it."
In 2005, the General Assembly was persuaded, unanimously passing a bill that called for the largest-ever one-time increase in operating budgets: $1 per capita per year for the next four years. (That added $400,000 to the Baltimore County library budget in the first year alone.)
Last year, the body unanimously approved a grant for library physical projects for the first time, a $5 million capital fund to be divvied up for renovations and new buildings. To date, 17 of the state's jurisdictions have submitted proposals.
Not like the others
Ask John Berry, of Library Journal, about the Librarian of the Year selection process, and he'll tell you it's a bit mysterious, even to him. Scores of professionals around the country submit nominations, often unbeknownst to the nominees. In the end, Berry's staff seeks a librarian who has "advanced the profession."
Last December, when Berry reached Baykan by cell phone in a supermarket to tell her she'd been nominated for the award, she nearly dropped her grocery bags.
"This usually goes to someone at a major urban library," she says. "It's like that old skit on Sesame Street. Chicago ... San Francisco ... Seattle ... Hagerstown, Maryland. Which of these things just isn't the same?"
On Feb. 1, Maryland Library Day, the General Assembly saluted Baykan with a plaque and elegant rhetoric. That afternoon, she was back in the office, pressing for new funding.
Seems there's always a new switch to throw.
Mary C. Baykan
Education: University of Houston, bachelor's degree, political science; University of South Florida, master's, library science; Frostburg State University, master's, business administration.
Family: Married with two grown daughters; husband, Yalcin, an ex-prison librarian, is a corrections officer at Jessup.
Career influences: The late President John F. Kennedy (saw him in the presidential motorcade in Houston on Nov. 21, 1963); Charles Churchwell, librarian at University of Houston who hired Baykan and later headed Brown University's library; Nettie C. Taylor, Maryland librarian whose four decades of lobbying multiplied public support for libraries more than sevenfold.
Favorite little-known service: At "Ask Us Now," a link on all county library Web sites, Maryland library cardholders can chat live online, 24 hours a day, with a reference librarian; at night, they connect with librarians in New Zealand.
On her desk: A plaque ("Some people make things happen, some watch things happen, while others wonder what happened."), a sculpture of a Celtic Druid spirit, a pile of buttons ("Libraries ... for Maryland's Future").
Outside interests: Celtic culture, Navy football (one daughter is a graduate), dogs ("We have four. Even after this award, they piddle on the carpet.")
MARK BAYKAN RECOMMENDS
The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein
The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling
Profiles in Courage, by John F. Kennedy
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen