Harford County Library Adapts to Tech-Crazy Times
With all the focus on e-books and other digital media, you might think brick-and-mortar libraries are going the way of the dinosaur. But in Harford County, you couldn’t be more wrong. According to Harford County Public Library Director Mary Hastler, circulation is up this year and 82 percent of the County’s nearly 250,000 residents are registered, active users.
So what is the secret to success for HCPL? In short, changing to keep up with the times. Hastler’s main focus is identifying what’s important to people who live in the County and developing relevant programs and resources to support them. “My challenge is to figure out what’s going on in our customers’ world and how we can help make their lives easier,” she says.
Something for Everyone
Think a library’s bread-and-butter is retirees? Think again. For the indomitable Baby Boomer generation, retirement means being busier than ever, working in a second career, helping with grandkids, traveling or volunteering. “In 1996, you saw more older people and retirees with different needs. They would call in and request titles to pick up for the week, and be willing to wait a couple of months for the new best sellers. Nowadays no one wants to wait,” Hastler says. That’s why the library has made what Hastler calls a “paradigm shift” in the past three years – if they don’t have what you want, they’ll request it.
The new face of today’s library patron is a female in her mid-20s to mid-40s who has finished school and is working either outside the home or as a mother. “They don’t have a lot of time, so what they’re looking for are things to entertain their children, help with schoolwork, or provide resources to help if they are part of the sandwich generation providing care to both their children and their parents,” Hastler explains.
But that doesn’t mean the library only caters to women or mothers. On the contrary, there are programs and resources for patrons of all ages and walks of life.
Starting Them Young
Because its “star customer” group of young moms often shows up with kids in tow, HCPL devotes significant attention to programs for its youngest patrons. In April, the library celebrated the 35th year of its signature program, “Opening the Gift,” which nurtures the development of early literacy skills in licensed daycare provider homes.
The previous month, it launched Little Leapers 3.5 at its Edgewood, Aberdeen and Abingdon branches. Designed for children age 3 to 5, the program allows patrons to check out iPad Minis loaded with educational apps to develop pre- and early literacy skills. For instance, a LEGO app allows the user to build the vehicle the LEGO character rides in, encouraging engineering skills as part of the library’s STREAM focus (STEM with Reading and Art added in). Little Leaper activity kits are also available for children up to age 5 to support STREAM activities.
Keeping Them Engaged
For older school age children, there are STEM and STREAM-based Leap kits that can involve the whole family, as well as popular elementary school events such as the Bubble Lady or Dinosaur Event.
The library staff is also branching out into doing more art shows with this age group, which involves working with art teachers to prepare materials for an art show hosted at the library, complete with an opening reception.
Another popular new program for this age group is its American Girl lending program, designed to boost interest in American history. After hearing about a similar program in Virginia, last year HCPL ordered 110 dolls and accessories and bundled them in pink backpacks with the corresponding book and a marble notebook to encourage kids to write about their adventures with the dolls. Within 24 hours, all the dolls were checked out, and within 48 hours more than 600 holds had been requested.
As for teens, the library works hard to keep them engaged as well, with unique spaces and offerings such as a film contest in which teens can submit their own films, attend a reception and win prizes. The Bel Air Library recently renovated its teen area, putting in all-new carpeting, modular furniture, and even a flat screen TV for playing video games, watching films and online creative projects.
Not Just for Kids
But all the fun isn’t reserved for kids. HCPL boasts an extensive schedule of offerings for adults, from book groups “to go” (20 copies of a book, complete with discussion questions that can be checked out for three weeks) to a Beatles exhibit in the Fallston branch in honor of the band’s 50th anniversary. One of its most unique events for adults may be its annual Romancing the Chrome Car Show, produced in conjunction with the Jarrettsville Lions Club, which has far exceeded expectations to become one of the premier car shows in the mid-Atlantic region.
Hastler says the event originally came about as a way to celebrate National Library Week, recognized each year in April. After 250 cars showed up at the inaugural event, Hastler says they knew immediately it would be an annual occurrence, and she believes they are the only library to host a car show.
While demand for physical books remains high, Hastler is quick to point out the library’s enthusiastic support of emerging technologies as an added way to serve patrons. She says, “We were early adopters of e-books, and even served as one of the first beta testers in the country for Hoopla, a service that allows patrons to download movies and songs.”
She says the most challenging part of providing e-books is getting content from reluctant publishers, something Hastler actively lobbies for. “What’s important to me is to be able to provide customers with content. I don’t care what format – book, e-book, audio book – I want to be able to provide people with the content they want.”
Other technological investments include the launch of a 3-D printer in the Abingdon branch, which Hastler says “runs continuously.” An invention that originated with defense contractors and scientists who needed a way to make prototypes, the library’s printer is used for everything from jewelry making to creating smartphone cases. Remember those old shoebox dioramas we used to make as kids? According to Hastler, kids can now program their ideas and output them on the 3-D printer.
Grounded in People
Despite all the technological bells and whistles, in-person programs still draw a crowd. Sophisticated Maker Space areas attract high-end crafters, while events featuring strategic partners provide advice on a variety of timely topics, including the Maryland Health Exchange.
Author Nights Out remain popular as well, and Hastler says over the past couple of years HCPL has been working hard to bring in top-notch authors, including Iron Man Cal Ripken, Jr. and New York Times bestselling author Lisa Scottoline. The library also strives to support local authors through programs like its “Just Write” groups because as Hastler notes, “Everybody’s got a novel in their heart.”
Finally, the library offers practical support, from child care during adult programs to passport processing at its Bel Air branch, where patrons can get a new passport or renew an existing one, complete with getting their photo taken.
Built by the Community
The success of the library as measured by active users, circulation and even fundraisers such as its Annual Gala, which last year raised more than $100,000, are testament to its support within the community – something Hastler actively fosters. “I say this a lot, but it’s something I believe. They always say libraries build communities, but I think communities build libraries. When I hear suggestions I park it away and think about it for future. People in Harford County care; they care about their library.”
For the latest on library news and programs, visit www.hcplonline.com. I95