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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Resembling a banquet table in a mansion’s great hall, a pair of long desks, each holding eight Dell computers, occupies the center of the large open room at the Bethesda library. The screens are often fully occupied, whether by job seekers, retirees working on investment portfolios, teens playing Minecraft or Fortnite, or homeless individuals with shopping carts. Users sit no more than a foot apart.

With little warning, a screaming match erupts at one end of the pod. A highly agitated woman wearing a woolen watch cap curses her neighbor, who apparently was complaining about the woman’s loud talking and acting out. Manager Nancy Benner arrives, and her efforts to calm the overwrought person are met with vitriol.

“Do you want me to call the police?” Benner asks.

“Do what you want!” the woman yells.

Benner calls the police, but the woman leaves before they arrive. Due to repeated incidents, Benner says, staff has had “a lot of recent training in how to de-escalate things like that. But sometimes you can’t de-escalate, you have to get help. I think it was out of the loud woman’s control. There are people who come in here and do and say things but they can’t handle themselves. It’s our responsibility to keep everyone in the room safe and secure while not trampling on the rights of the person having the meltdown.”

Often, Benner’s first call is to John Mendez, the executive director of Bethesda Cares, an agency that provides services for homeless people. “From 10 years of experience, I know the library is [a] default shelter for the homeless who have no other place to go,” Mendez says. “The library staff is very good about accepting everyone; they are nonjudgmental, no matter your social class or status in society. I knew also the staff was facing challenges from folks with mental issues. So they would call me and I’d go to the library to engage that person or try to get them to a service that treats them so they won’t have to stay at the library.”

Mendez says efforts to find housing are reducing the homeless population that frequents the library. In 2010, he says, roughly 40 people in Bethesda were using the library for shelter from time to time. Now there are about 10. Vassallo often says that all library personnel “are to some degree social workers.” One of the chief attributes she looks for in new hires, she says, “is the ability to get along with people.”
An environment open to all inevitably produces friction, and the ability to manage those conflicts, small and large, is prized among the staff. Briskin-Limehouse of the Library Advisory Board—essentially a liaison between the central administration and the 22 branches—says libraries must be viewed as a safe space.

“Libraries are one of the forces for equal access,” she says, “so they are important for maintaining access to information that is not dependent on your socioeconomic status.”