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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One of the improvements from a refresh at the Bethesda location was the addition of glass-walled rooms, four that are designated for collaboration and the largest one for quiet study. Photo by Thomas Goertel

On Saturday, Feb. 1, the Bethesda branch kicked off Library Lovers Month with special programming for kids and a “community conversation” with at-large county Councilmember Will Jawando. The first-term councilmember is the designated point person for MCPL. To gain a better perspective on library funding, he’s been visiting all the branches. As people filed into the meeting room, Jawando noted privately, “There are people who get great use out of the libraries, and others who have no clue about what libraries have to offer.”

Jawando told his audience that his goal is to assess library staffing, hold hearings and make recommendations for the next fiscal year’s operating budget. Bethesda has nine full-time and six part-time employees; many activities, such as the conversation club, are run by volunteers. The fiscal 2021 budget is $57.2 million for 22 library sites, including the Noyes Library for Young Children in Kensington and the Montgomery County Correctional Facility Library in Boyds.

“I’m the librarian at Lafayette Elementary School [in D.C.], and here in Bethesda you have a much better collection of books for young readers than I find in the District,” said Rachel Leese of Chevy Chase. Another woman—one of the 15 or so visitors in the room—requested more e-books.
“You have all these services and new technology, but nobody knows about them—you don’t advertise them,” another resident said. MCPL Director Anita Vassallo agreed that they can do a better job of marketing the library system. “We have many things we want you to take advantage of,” she said.

Jawando, a lawyer who worked on education issues in the Obama administration, says he’s already concluded that library funding and functions do not match up—in other words, the system is underfunded. “In some branches, the staffing levels are inadequate. In others, the collection needs work. I think the libraries are being asked to do a lot with a little.”