May-June 2020

A new chapter

How the library in downtown Bethesda is staying relevant in the age of e-books, smartphones and Alexa

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The English Conversation Club typically meets twice a week at the library in downtown Bethesda. Photo by Thomas Goertel

In the age of Alexa, Siri, smartphones and other know-it-all technology delivering information via a spoken command, how does a library compete? The answer: It doesn’t. What the library provides is a one-stop shop for many services, at no cost.

“One of our missions throughout the years has been to evolve so we remain relevant,” says Nancy Benner, the manager of the Bethesda library.

“The access to information hasn’t changed, but the robust programming and the attention given to early literacy and readiness to read—that has really evolved and come to the forefront of what we’re doing here. We also offer the ability to get a high school degree through online programs.” The Montgomery County Public Libraries’ (MCPL) Career Online High School started in 2016, pairing eligible students with an academic coach independent of the school system. So far, 30 students have received high school diplomas, Benner says.

Public libraries in the county have greatly expanded their collections of digital downloads, audio books and new formats such as Playaway, a business card-size digital recording that can be played through headphones or vehicle speakers. Users can remotely access databases, language programs and streaming services—all without setting foot in the building.

And libraries serve a function that is easily taken for granted, says Laura Briskin-Limehouse, outgoing chair of the county’s Library Advisory Board, an advocacy group. “They are a public space, one of the few places in society where you can just exist without having to pay money.”
The building may look the same, but downtown Bethesda’s public library—and indeed most, if not all, of the 22 sites in the MCPL system—is a dramatically different institution than it was even a decade ago. For one thing, MCPL’s operating budget has doubled during that time to just over $57 million. Partly through design and partly demand, libraries now function more like community centers, still circulating books and other material, but also offering many services you would not expect from the library you grew up with.

Inside the single-story brick building—renamed the Connie Morella Library in 2018 for the former U.S. Representative from Maryland—you can polish your English conversation, use a computer or borrow a laptop, reserve a private conference or study room, get help with a job application, take your toddler to story time, purchase a Senior SmarTrip Card for Metro, and buy a nearly new book for $1.
You may also borrow a book, an e-book or an audiobook. Or 100 books. At one time.