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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Nancy Benner (left) is the library’s manager. She’s worked in the Montgomery County library system for more than three decades and says she never tires of answering questions or helping people find books. Photo by Thomas Goertel

At midday this past New Year’s Eve, scores of parents and their small children crowded into the meeting room near the entrance to the Bethesda library for the fifth annual “Happy Noon Year.”

“Since kids don’t typically stay up until midnight, we decided to have an event where they get to celebrate,” says Cassandra Malik, head of children’s services at the library. Partygoers played games until the noon “balloon drop,” then busied themselves at crafts tables. “It’s a lot of work; we started planning two months ago,” Malik explains. “But the feedback we get is terrific, and we had about 150 people this year, many of them international families.”

Malik, a Midwesterner who studied library science at the University of Illinois, came to Bethesda from the Baltimore library system five years ago. In Bethesda, there is a heavy emphasis on children’s programming due to the high concentration of families with young children, she says.

In addition to overseeing the children’s collection, she plans and implements programming while also collaborating on joint programs with schools and community groups. Children and their families can choose from a buffet that features Toddler and Preschool Storytime, Play Date at the Library, Baby Storytime, Family Movie Night and Pajama Storytime. Elementary school-age children can play board games and use LEGO toys each week.

Malik’s favorite program, however, requires a four-legged volunteer. On a Monday afternoon in January, 6-year-old Clara Soheili, wearing her favorite furry vest, walks into a small conference room, sits down next to Winnie, who is a year younger, and begins reading to her from an oversize Elephant & Piggy book. Winnie, a gray and white Shih Tzu mix, yawns and appears uninterested in the story but is very happy about Clara’s hand resting on her haunch. Winnie’s owner, Margie Tommer of Bethesda, volunteers her own and Winnie’s services through People. Animals. Love. (PAL), a D.C.-based organization that provides therapy dogs to schools, hospitals, nursing homes and other libraries that offer this program.

“We usually have four certified therapy dogs, and the children come in and they get to read for 10 or 15 minutes,” Malik says. “Research has shown that children feel more comfortable reading to a dog because dogs are nonjudgmental. So it’s really for beginning readers or those who may be struggling a bit. Parents have told me that their kids hate reading otherwise, but they really look forward to this.”