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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There’s an emphasis on children’s programming at the Bethesda library, where kids have the opportunity to read to therapy dogs like Carly, pictured with her owner, Marlene Schooler. Photo by Thomas Goertel

Theoretical physicist Albert Einstein once said, “The only thing that you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library.” Connie Morella Library is located on Arlington Road, but it took some time getting there. In 1925, the Newcomb Club of Bethesda sponsored a traveling library with 50 books based in a hardware store on Wisconsin Avenue. Six years later, the Newcomb-Bethesda Public Library was established with a collection of 600 books and housed in the old Bank Building on Wisconsin Avenue and Edgemoor Lane. From there, the library hopscotched to the Masonic Temple, then to a building adjacent to the Bank of Bethesda and, when the Depression hit, to nonexistence. A 1940s revival was housed in the basement of B-CC High School before the library moved to its current location in 1976.

Bethesda’s library is one of the many branches in Montgomery County that has undergone or is slated for a facelift. In 2015, MCPL launched a program to “refresh” the libraries rather than overhaul them. After the first two projects were completed, MCPL estimated it would cost $20 million to refresh 16 branches, compared with about $203 million to renovate them. Turnaround time would be much shorter: months not years. Bethesda was closed for several months in 2017-2018 for a $3.2 million facelift that included new collaboration spaces, brighter lighting, a larger circulation desk and improved access for disabled individuals. Parking is metered at the large Bethesda lot due to its proximity to downtown shops and the Metro station.

Silver Spring and Wheaton both have new buildings and have seen increases in attendance. The Wheaton branch, which is attached to a community center, attracted almost 83,000 visitors in October 2019, according to MCPL. Four years earlier, that number was about 59,000.