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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Ask Vassallo if libraries are keeping pace with the times and she cites a 2017 Pew Research Center study showing that about 75% of county residents ages 18 to 29 said they read “physical books.” The report also stated that millennials are the most likely generation to use public libraries—they had the highest percentage of any age group that visited a public library or bookmobile in a 12-month period. Visitors are still checking out books, or using them in the library. MCPL statistics show a printed materials circulation of 9,715,578 items during fiscal year 2015 and 10,232,348 in fiscal year 2019.

Among the innovations that Vassallo says have kept libraries relevant and vital are self-checkout machines, wireless printing capabilities, a steadily growing e-book and audiobook collection, access to streaming video (classes, concert performances), and language-learning applications such as Rosetta Stone. The Silver Spring, Long Branch and Rockville branches offer workshops and resources for digital content creation.

In 2019, MCPL stopped charging fines on overdue children’s materials and Vassallo hopes to eliminate late charges altogether. “Public libraries play a vital role in the development of children’s early literacy skills, and the removal of fines on materials for children is a significant reduction of barriers to accessing library materials for children,” she says.

Vassallo claims that “even with all the apps and advances in tech, young people still want to be in the physical library, so as our branches undergo refreshes and renovations, we design modern spaces with our community needs in mind.”