New Card Lets Library Users Borrow Across State

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 10, 2005

The big chain bookstores may have stacks of the latest bestseller, aisles of DVDs and cappuccino with whipped cream on top. But Maryland libraries are working to prove that they are far from obsolete.

In recent years, the state's libraries have been quietly transforming themselves into efficient lending machines. Forget the card catalogue. Libraries now feature drive-through windows, online renewals and e-book downloads. Audio books for iPods are in the works.

Their latest innovation is a statewide library card that allows users to borrow and return books at any of the 174 libraries in Maryland. The MPOWER card debuts tomorrow, coinciding with today's kickoff of National Library Week. A dozen other states have similar cards.

"Sometimes libraries are stereotyped as always taking a traditional approach," said Clara Bohrer, president of the national Public Library Association. "But I think libraries are dynamic places . . . that are attuned to the community's need."

Library users will have to sign up for the card in their home county and must register the first time they use it in another district. Officials hope the card will encourage workers to drop by a library on their lunch hour or help families squeeze in visits between after-school activities.

"We all run around. We live in one place and work in another," first lady Kendel S. Ehrlich said at a news conference Thursday to announce the launch. "I'm not sure when it got so crazy, but it did."

In Maryland and across the country, library usage has gone up in recent years. In a 2003 survey commissioned by state officials, libraries were given an A rating by 42 percent of residents, more than the percentage who gave A ratings to any public service listed, including police and schools. And though the number of registered borrowers statewide dipped slightly from 1998 to 2003, total circulation was up by more than 4 million.

Still, the survey also showed that residents want more accessible libraries. For most people, a stop at the library is just one item on their to-do lists. Irene M. Padilla, assistant state superintendent for libraries, said that the new card was designed with that in mind. Where people live is not necessarily where they work and play, she said.

"It's showing that we've got to be oriented toward our customers," she said. "We've got to follow where our customers' needs are sending us."

With the new card, users still must follow the guidelines for the library from which they borrow materials. For example, fines for late adult books in Prince George's County are 15 cents per day; in Montgomery County, the fee is 35 cents.

Andrea Lewis, a consultant for the State Department of Education, which oversees the library system, said that anyone with unpaid fines of $50 or more in one county will be barred from checking out materials at all state libraries.

Officials said that the new card is one of several ways that libraries hope to adapt to people's increasingly mobile lifestyles. They're also looking into acquiring lending kiosks that rent movies, similar to those in the District and Bethesda. And they're investigating library loans that could be delivered directly to residences, as is done by Netflix, which rents DVDs.

"We're looking at all the national models . . . and saying, 'How can we provide that?' " said Stacey Aldrich, branch chief for public libraries and state networking. "Because customers are expecting that."

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