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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You can use a computer or borrow a laptop at the library, which also has wireless printing capabilities. Photo by Thomas Goertel

Just inside the entrance of the Bethesda library, a continuous book sale of items donated by the public brings in modest revenue. The donated books are put on shelves; a cashbox operates on the honor system. Despite the fire-sale prices—$1 for hardcover, 50 cents for paperback—volunteers have routinely observed one eager reader filling a shopping bag and taking a 100% discount.

A daily rhythm persists. Parents and nannies with preschoolers arrive early for children’s programming; authors and writers’ groups work in glass-walled collaboration rooms; tutors meet with their clients; job seekers ask library staff for help preparing applications and resumes; and homeless people use the library for shelter. Libraries have evolved into service centers and a “third place” in sociologists’ parlance—not home, not work, but a gathering spot that fills a social need.

Elaine Cooperman is at the library today, as she is three or four times a week, tutoring students in math and SAT prep. Shortly after 2:30 p.m., her clients begin arriving from Walt Whitman and B-CC high schools. “Apart from being close to the schools, this library welcomes tutors, which is not the case with all libraries,” Cooperman says. Some libraries find the tutors disruptive; some library systems (not MCPL) even forbid for-profit tutoring. “I’ve seen as many as six tutors here, but it’s a welcoming place, as long as we speak softly.”

Benner has worked in the Montgomery County library system for more than three decades—the last seven years in Bethesda—and says she never tires of answering questions or locating books. “I like helping people get information,” she says. Among the questions she’s been asked: Who’s the better poet, Yeats or Keats? How can I get a real estate license?

“As far back as I can remember, that is what interested me,” Benner says. “I’ve worked at school libraries and a special trade association library, but they don’t have the variety of going from one topic to another in minutes; they are more routine. Public libraries are anything but routine.”

Once, Benner was approached by a young man who said he was about to receive a graduate degree in architecture. He had met his girlfriend, also a student of architecture, while working on a project to design and build a public library. “He asked my permission to hide clues inside some of her favorite books throughout the library collection,” Benner recalls. “The clues led her back to the lobby, where he was waiting on one knee with a beautiful ring and a proposal. She said yes!”