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For county, great library is just around the corner

October 31, 2009|By TIM ROWLAND

When the Washington County Free Library unveils its new design in a couple of weeks, it will show an attractive and dignified brick facade that ties in better with the downtown and charitably euthanizes the building's current 1960s architecture, which is -- well, let's be charitable and call it "memorable."

The $20 million renovation/addition will double the library's size, which might at first seem incongruous with the ongoing national fretting over the future of books and reading.

Yet today, the library is busier than ever. Serving 1,000 people a day, it has more foot traffic than any other downtown institution. The typical demographic of its patrons? There is none, really. It attracts rich and poor, young and old, and people of all social and educational levels.

The economic downturn only has exacerbated the strain of serving the public in an outdated building. Four-dollar gas started the library run, and an unemployment rate flirting with 10 percent has added to the demand.

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"The number of people who need the library has exploded," said Mary Baykan, director of the library. "The building is at the end of its life cycle. It's way too small for the number of people it serves. The boiler looks like it would have fit in the QE1, and you literally can't plug anything else into the building or it will blow."

So tight is the space that if all the books that currently are on loan were returned at once, they would have to be stacked in the aisles.

Along with books, people come to check out movies instead of going to the theater. They can take in a lecture instead of spending money on other entertainment. Many people show up looking for help with their resumes. They might not have had to look for a job in 20 years, and "it's a whole new world out there," Baykan said.

The unemployed, used to filling out paperwork, are taught to apply for jobs and post resumes online.

Of course, jobs are easier to find if youngsters take advantage of the library's books.

"If you can teach kids to read and read well, they will be a success in life," Baykan said.

Baykan, Library Journal's 2007 Librarian of the Year and a woman whom The (Baltimore) Sun called "a state and national force in the world of libraries," is one of the more productive and influential people in Washington County. But, like the library itself, her role in the community often is understated.

Baykan sees the intangibles of libraries and books, and envisions a library that is the hub of community thought and community connection, much as the salons and coffeehouses were in the days of yore.

"This is where people can come together as a community to sit and talk," she said. "People today hunger for that. They want to connect."

Indeed, a good library is at the center of intellectual and commercial success in vibrant downtowns, such as Rockville, Frederick and Urbana.

"If Potomac Street is a mall, we're Macy's," Baykan said. "A library in the center of town puts revitalization on the fast track."

When the project is completed, the first floor will be more of a communal area, while the upstairs will be reserved for quieter, more scholarly study. The new space will allow for the expansion of the Western Maryland Room and better access to its impressive collection of historic documents.

Those who take the time to explore it will find a treasure trove of history.

"It's amazing that this little library has such a rich collection of materials," Baykan said.

The physical presence of a modern facility also is likely to do wonders for the immediate neighborhood, where -- despite repeated efforts -- rehabilitation of the surrounding block has never taken off.

It's often said, or it used to be said anyway, that the quality of a community can be judged by the quality of its libraries. This expansion, financially fueled, Baykan said, by the efforts of state Sen. Donald F. Munson and Del. John P. Donoghue in Annapolis and support from the city and county, will add another jewel to the city, akin to the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, The Maryland Theatre and the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts.

Directly or indirectly, it will be a hefty bootstrap that will lift the quality of life for everyone in the county.

Construction will begin in late spring and take about 18 months to finish. The timing couldn't be better. Downtown Hagerstown was making some significant progress until the recession stunted the revival. The library will help jump-start the lost momentum and its completion should roughly coincide with the time the economy gets solidly back on its feet.

In a curious way, there is a congruity to it. Looking for cheaper, more comforting entertainment, the simple book is lighting the way forward.

Baykan remembers the first days of microfilm, when it was believed the new medium would put the printed page out of business. Now, books do battle with electronic print on computer screens, Kindles or phones. The result, she believes, will be the same.

"People find solace in books, and won't give them up," she said. "Honestly, very few people like to curl up in bed with a laptop."

And for those wise people, it's gratifying to know that a great library is, literally and figuratively, just around the corner -- and ready to make some noise.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or via e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video under opinion@herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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