Walk into Arlington County’s Central Library at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday. The parking lot is full. Grade-schoolers and their younger siblings are scattered around the children’s section. Adults are plugged into the wireless signals from their devices or browsing novels and DVDs. At the moment, the Digital Projects Lab where residents can record videos is free, but it won’t be for long.
Try Montgomery County’s Germantown Library on a Sunday afternoon. Someone is using the computers to search for a job. Someone else is leafing through the collection of Vietnamese-language books. The librarian at the counter fields a question about e-books.
Across the Washington region, public libraries have increased their role in the community, hosting myriad meetings in their conference rooms, teaching people to use the latest technological devices and connecting residents with language classes and voter registration services.
The range of users and uses is breathtaking. Although proposals for gorgeous new or renovated library buildings in the District and the wealthier suburbs get the headlines and television airtime, the main challenge lies in the day-to-day operations of this public resource.
As the region recovers from the Great Recession of the past four years, public library leaders say they are slowly recovering from the budget cuts that reduced their collections, closed their doors on weekends and nights and caused cutbacks in custodial services. The doors might be open longer, but not as long as they were before the economic downturn.
“We’ve been able to restore most of those [reduced] hours,” said Sam Clay, director of Fairfax County libraries. “Over time, our customers really voiced to the powers that be that they don’t like reduced hours, and their voices were heard.”
Library directors are careful to praise the elected officials who hold the purse strings and have to balance the needs of police and fire, economic development, infrastructure and other community services in a time of uncertainty, even in the relatively wealthy Washington area. But just beneath the surface of the team-player talk, the stress of the past few years shows through as directors struggle to replace experienced, full-time professionals with fewer or part-time researchers.
And public demand is as strong as ever, librarians say. Whether measured by circulation size, customer visits to branches or Web sites, or participation in classes, reading programs or information inquiries, people are using their public libraries.
“We’re still facing challenges around unemployment,” said Larry Broxton, spokesman for the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System. “Number one, [patrons] can’t afford Internet access at home, so they come to us. Two, they need job-searching resources.”
The American Library Association reports that a national 2010 study showed that 4.4 million Americans used their libraries for job-related activities, even as budgets shrank. A Pew Charitable Trusts study of 15 urban library systems, not including Washington, noted that library visits rose 6 percent from 2005 to 2011. And if you happened by the Arlington Central Library on June 30, the scorchingly hot day after the derecho storm cut power and phone service in much of Northern Virginia, you would have found 700 people sharing air conditioning, Internet access and power strips.
Diane Kresh, director of Arlington’s libraries, considers the library, along with public schools, to be one of the twin pillars of democracy in the community.
“I like to think of us as taking complex information that’s very abstract — not everyone is Bill Nye the Science Guy — and turning it into concrete information,” she said.
That information is increasingly coming in digital form. To access it, librarians are becoming digital experts, teaching others to use e-readers on smartphones and tablets and all the other devices now used for reading and research.
“You’ll have the grandparent who comes in and says, ‘My grandkids bought this for me for Christmas — now what do I do?’ ” said Rose Dawson, director of Alexandria’s libraries, whose colleagues have become trainers for other librarians as well.
Stocking those digital shelves is an entirely separate matter. The American Library Association has led the effort to negotiate with major publishers, four of whom have refused to sell e-books to libraries. Others have raised prices significantly, which, in some cases, has caused a shortage of e-books. The group Friends of the Reston Regional Library donated $100,000 to that facility for the purchase of e-books, Clay said. But not all jurisdictions are so wealthy.
Just keeping up-to-date with computer software is a challenge, and library users increasingly want to connect without stepping foot into the facility.
“We tweet, we chat, we answer questions via e-mail, we have teen and adult [Web] pages,” said Parker Hamilton, head of Montgomery County public libraries. “We are still doing our job, but we are doing it in different ways. . . The need is to provide meaningful, relevant information that folks can get to. There’s no sense having information if people can’t get to it.”
The same goes for language skills. Library directors say the demand includes immigrants who need help learning English, highly educated professionals from foreign countries wanting to use databases for research and homesick expatriates wanting to read magazines from their homelands. Libraries hiring new staff members are therefore always on the lookout for foreign-language speakers with research skills.
Many libraries have expanded into business or professional library services and forged partnerships with college and government libraries in the area. At Longwood Community Recreation Center in Brookeville, residents can borrow books and DVDs from a vending machine. In Arlington, they can care for a garden, and in Alexandria, they can delve into special collections dating to Colonial times.
Although those historical resources are valued, the attention of local librarians is clearly on the future.
“How do we know we’re reaching everybody who needs us?” Kresh said. “We try to make sure we are welcoming...We are reaching out to caregivers, we have programs for teen parents and for inmates. Our librarians go to community meetings. . .From these conversations has come an expansion of our scope of mission.”