Going Beyond Books—Libraries get a reboot

Libraries reboot by upping their tech game and creating a community atmosphere.

IMG 5653rszMy six-year-old daughter was giggling as she clawed at the air, giant black goggles covering her face, game controllers in each hand. She was standing in the middle of the Westfield Annapolis Mall, looking like a child who had ambled blindly away from a birthday piñata (sans stick, of course). She was trying to climb a virtual tree, courtesy of Oculus Rift, but she was too short to reach the first branch. My husband raced over to hold her up so she could keep “climbing,” but the appeal was lost on her. “It was cool,” she admitted, “Although I didn’t like how my hands were disattached (sic) from me.”

The bigger kids who followed her in the virtual reality experience, however, were not so easy to dismiss the experience. I watched a ten-year-old boy wildly punching the air before spinning around and dropping to the ground, nearly knocking down a passing shopper.

It was a packed house at the Westfield Annapolis Mall that evening (some 500 people attended), as hordes of families crowded into one of the corridors for a combination Family Game Night and Virtual Reality Showcase. The game night, put on by Westfield, featured a DJ, Chick-Fil-A dinners, tables of great family friendly board games and a roving family of circus performers. But just down the corridor, the Anne Arundel County Public Library was hosting a more technologically forward game night, complete with two types of Virtual Reality experiences (Oculus Rift and HTC Vibe), and two banks of computers set up for kids to create 3-D virtual worlds and explore smaller VR sets. Annapolis resident Sarah Rees says “the library put together a wonderful VR event at the mall, blending it with a much more modern ​display of a dozen interactive VR headsets, each with its own “world” to explore. The parents were as excited to try out each of the headsets as the kids.”

The Tip of the Techberg
Virtual reality might seem like an odd avenue for a library to pursue, but it’s just one of a string of high-tech programs that the Anne Arundel County Library is providing to its
customers. “We’re trying to become a place where people can come and experience new technology,” says Christine Feldmann marketing and communications manager.
It’s not the first time the library and the mall have paired up for such an event. In 2015, the two teamed up for a high-tech fashion show to kick off the new wing of the mall. “We had mannequins all along that corridor [showcasing] things that used technology, all designed by people in the community,” says Feldmann. “There was a broach that opened a garage door and a heated jacket for walking your dog. It was really fun.”

Across the 15 branches in Anne Arundel County, the organization is adding new technology all the time. “We’ve got 3-D printing now at five libraries—Annapolis, Glen Burnie, Odenton, Maryland City and Crofton. [The printers are] helpful for businesseople to create prototypes of a product, or the average person to replace a piece on a chessboard,” Feldmann says. “There are tons of programs out there that you can create a file and we’ll print it for you.”

36032011875 8e212859c2 oIn addition to 3-D printing and virtual reality (which Feldmann says they’re getting in the branches on a somewhat regular basis), branches across the county are always coming up with new ways to incorporate STEM activities to their programming. From Minecraft gaming events to coding lessons, hands-on STEM projects, there’s always something going on. And it’s not all for the kids. Adults can brush up on their tech skills, too, with basic computer skill courses, 3-D printing courses, and one-on-one training sessions.

A Library Card Does What?
These days having a library card gets you more than books and .25-cent late fees. It’s now a key to an incredible collection of learning resources for kids and adults alike. Want to learn a new language? Your library card (this goes for all of the area’s county libraries, by the way) gets you free access to Rosetta Stone, the top language-learning software on the market. If you’re in need of a new technical skill—anything from creating mobile apps or editing videos to keeping up with modern marketing and business practices—Lynda.com will get you up and running with online courses taught by industry professionals, and it’s all free with your library account.

“Lynda.com is just the latest educational tool we are providing to library customers,” writes Jennifer Falkowski, information services manager for the Southern Maryland Regional Library Association. “By providing this service, we are able to save their customers money, as well as help meet their need for quality and convenient learning experiences.”

For kids and teenagers who need tutoring help they can access Brainfuse tutoring online, daily 2 p.m. to midnight on just about every topic. And if they’ve got a paper or college application essay to write, the Brainfuse writing lab can help 24/7.

Affordable Options
Most of the services the library provides these days are free, leading one to wonder where the funding comes from for such a great undertaking. In Anne Arundel County, about 80 percent comes from the county, and 20 percent from the state. A small, but growing percentage comes from its foundation, which is nearing the end of its first ever $3 million asset-building campaign. The goal for these funds, according to Feldmann, is “everything from creating more welcoming spaces to trying to improve technology, so a lot of the new tech that’s come in has been from donations through the foundation.”

Building a Community
Libraries are evolving from being a repository for books to community centers—Places to learn, to be inspired, to grow. Over the last year Anne Arundel County Library served about 250,000 people through programs and outreach efforts, and that’s not even counting people who walked in the door (which was in the 2.5 million range). “We try to take the pulse of what’s going on in the community and provide programming that matches that,” says Feldmann, “Everything from end-of-life conversations to Narcan training . . . which is great. You can go get training, get your free kit and walk out the door.”

From there, it’s everything from Coffee with a Cop, to Spanish classes, grant-finding help, book clubs, author visits, tax help, basic adult learning, computer classes, GED prep, record expungement clinics and resume help. “To us,” says Feldmann, “it’s all about providing what the community wants and needs.”

23470086645 3db0d93de9 oAccess for All
Libraries are creating communities, and they have made sure to include the youngest among us. All children enrolled in the Anne Arundel County School system are eligible for fine-free SAIL (Student Access to Improved Learning) cards. Kids also have access to a special digital library catalog, and an early literacy program, which includes the 1,000 books before kindergarten initiative. Kids can spend the summer diving into books at the library, too, with summer reading clubs and camps. Teens, too, have a space of their own with the Anne Arundel library’s Club 1117 program (1117 stands for 11- to 17-year-olds). At the Crofton branch, teens have their own comfortable space where they can hang out to get homework done, or play games and do STEM events. Another 1117 Club is set to open in Odenton, where there will be a glassed-in area so kids can be louder, and there will be computers and gaming stations, and they can relax after school (the branch is also a school bus drop-off location).

The Best News
With the influx of new technology from e-readers to unrelenting screen time for kids, and STEM programs at the forefront of our kids’ education, “people are still reading,” says Feldmann. “That’s still our bread and butter.”

Coming Soon—A Library at the Mall!
The main library branch on West Street in Annapolis is being rebuilt, scheduled to reopen in with a brand new 32,000-square-foot building. While the facility is under construction, a new space will open at the Westfield Annapolis Mall, complete with comfortable seating; a Discovery Dock children’s area; Wi-Fi; self checkout capabilities; public computers; DVDs; a 3-D printer and an area for customers to pick up materials placed on hold. The branch, called “Discoveries: the Library at the Mall” will open April 30, 2018.