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Showdown at the Library

At stake: The location, size and scope of Anne Arundel County public libraries

County Executive Steve Schuh, left, looks over a map of Anne Arundel library branches. The county’s 15 branches serve more than half a million residents, and all are overseen by Hampton ‘Skip’ Auld, right.

You’d expect this kind of action in a thriller borrowed from your public library. Not over it.
    Instead, Anne Arundel County’s public libraries are the story in a showdown with high stakes: The location, size and scope of public libraries for the county’s 555,743 people.
    On one side is County Executive Steve Schuh, now six months in office. His first budget proposes a JumpStart Anne Arundel Capital Funding Program to initiate “a new vision that brings our library system closer to those it serves by expanding service to underserved areas.” In Schuh’s vision, the library system would grow by nine, from 15 to 24, with five or six underway over the next decade. The tradeoff: They’d all be small libraries.
    On the other side is Hampton ‘Skip’ Auld, the Anne Arundel Public Library System’s chief executive, five years on the job. His vision is for our system of 15 libraries, ranging from regional to community, with “more space to continue to be first-class as it transitions from a repository for books to a vibrant center for technology, learning, recreation and community interaction.”
    What kind of library do you want? Read, consider and share your thoughts with your county executive and councilmen:

Bay Weekly    Mr. Executive, through your campaign, I followed your interest in reducing school size. Your idea of more, smaller libraries, however, comes as a surprise, and I gather in that I’m not alone.
Skip Auld    Totally out of the blue! He’s killing us.
Steve Schuh    The glass is much more than half full. We’re willing to build two new libraries — Annapolis and Riviera Beach — in one year. Never in the history of this county have two libraries been built in a year.
    I’m also willing to work with the library board to develop the largest expansion of library infrastructure ever in Anne Arundel County.

Bay Weekly    That expansion comes at a cost. The first cost is reducing to half-size the long-anticipated replacement of the Annapolis library, the oldest in the county. Executive Schuh says he will build a new Annapolis library at 25,000 square feet.
    Does Annapolis need a bigger library?
Skip Auld    You build a library expecting it to last two or three generations. The Annapolis library has been approved by the county council at 48,000 square feet, which gives room for growth and comes closer to meeting state recommendations for how much space a modern library should have per capita.
    Annapolis should be a substantial library because it’s a major city in our state, the seat of government and serving a very broad community. It also has one-of-a-kind features that serve the whole region, including a Maryland room; the Foundation Center that supports not-for-profits throughout the county; and the interlibrary loan service for the whole county.
    Twenty-five thousand square feet is only 4,000 square feet larger than the existing library, built in 1965. With all the new services a library needs nowadays, including computers, that’s going backwards. At that size, we’ll lose 4,000 books and have to reduce from 32 computers to 26. Libraries in the new century don’t need less space; they need more.
Steve Schuh    I don’t believe that concept holds a lot of water. I don’t believe people will drive 20 or 30 miles to a regional library rather than use a library in their neighborhood.
    Mega-libraries are not proving effective. We have 39,000 square feet in Odenton, and its circulation is the same as an average library, as is its number of cardholders. Despite its mammoth size, it functions as a neighborhood library. Why spend the money? Why repeat a mistake?
Bay Weekly    Mr. Executive, you say the problem is not only size but also money. You’ve cut the Annapolis funding to $20.2 million and proposed $21.3 million for a new library in ­Riviera Beach.
Steve Schuh    To put it in perspective, an entire elementary school costs about $35 million.
    Under my budget, where we have $27 million per year to maintain all roads, the idea of building one library to consume that much money just doesn’t make sense.
Skip Auld    A year ago, $39 million was deemed affordable by the county council. Then the library board worked with the council and the architects to get the budget down to $33 million, including all the materials for a new 48,000-square-foot library.
    That’s not a mega-library. For a mega-library, like ones in Seattle and Chicago, you’re talking 200,000 square feet and above.

Bay Weekly    Executive Schuh’s revision goes beyond the Annapolis library. It countermands the 20-year system-wide plan developed by the library board.
    Under that 2012 Master Plan, each library was to be upgraded. Thirteen of the 15 would have new buildings; of those, six would be built on new sites. All would be bigger.
    What are the pros and cons here?
Skip Auld    Maryland planning guidelines call for library buildings to provide one square foot per capita. Anne Arundel is the lowest in our region. We developed a solid plan for a renaissance of Anne Arundel libraries, based on our community needs in comparison to other libraries. We need capacity to provide the services desired by the community.
    When you’re trying to create a modern library, you want to put computers in a way that gives elbow space. You don’t want every shelf filled to the very end. You want room for growth, and more of the feel of a bookstore, where you take advantage of the covers of books to promote turnover. You want aisle space. We have the basic minimum 36 inches between bookshelves; the Americans with Disability Act recommends 42, so we’d like to fan out. Our meeting rooms are in extremely high demand.
    Beyond the basics, a lot of libraries are doing tremendous things of real value in terms of innovation. Teen space, 3-D printers, recording studios, places kids can learn by engaging with peers in real, positive ways with librarians helping.
For goals like that, we need 40 percent more space systemwide.
Steve Schuh    The Walmart-sized version the library board seems interested in? No, that can’t be.
    A library is not a rec center, not a performing arts center or gallery, though sometimes incidentally it does those things. The vast amounts of community meeting space, performing arts space, space for painting and sculpture, these are things my administration considers community-­centered activities, not education.
Bay Weekly    Then, Mr. Executive, what is a library?
Steve Schuh    Libraries are critically important to our quality of life in Anne Arundel County. First and foremost, they are educational institutions where people of all ages go to be informed, to advance knowledge or complete their school work or apply for a job or for entertainment, gathering information through whatever medium — books, newspapers, computers, books on tape. Each and every student needs to have easy access.

Bay Weekly    It sounds like the library’s long-range budget — $175 million for new construction — is not one you share.
Steve Schuh    Nobody wants to be the skunk in the garden party, and I didn’t enjoy telling people that what they had hoped was not going to happen. But that’s what I had to do.
    Financial responsibility for library construction has resided with county government administration, library operations and strategic planning with the library board. The current plan was developed without regard for financial consequences. The board has adopted a plan that is financially unfeasible, which they ­didn’t know it until someone finally told them they were going down an unrealistic path.
    The plan cannot be executed. It’s back to the drawing board in light of the financial resources available and the priority this administration has in providing library service to all.
Skip Auld    The library board has had total grasp of financial realities. We worked with the county council to develop fiscally responsible and affordable budgets that, starting with the Annapolis library, were funded by the council and the former executive.

Bay Weekly    Mr. Executive, what’s on your drawing board?
Steve Schuh    I see two problems with our libraries, and the problems point to the solutions.
    One problem is that half of the 15 libraries are in disrepair, half in good condition. But others need replacing in the next six years, decade or decade and a half. There’s no argument on disrepair. The solution is rehabilitating the existing libraries in need of repair over the next decade.
Bay Weekly    And problem two?
Steve Schuh    Some areas do not have service. The current strategic plan of the library board is to add no new service, instead building four regional mega-libraries that they believe would serve vast areas of the county. It’s not fair to provide outstanding service to some and no service at all to others.
    So solution two is to expand libraries to unserved areas down the spine of the county: Crownsville, Davidsonville, Waysons Corner, Harwood, Galesville, Lothian, Millersville, Shadyside and Woodwardville, where thousands more people are coming, starting this year.

Bay Weekly    How close should we be to our library?
Skip Auld    Based on a systems approach, we determined that the 15 libraries are placed well. Using the Microsoft mapping program, we know there’s no more than a 10-mile drive to each. When you overlay the circles across the map, we have almost complete coverage except in the sparsely populated southwest part of the county around Waysons Corner.
Steve Schuh    Ten miles is to me an absurdly long way to go. And by the way, where are those 10 miles? Benfield Road during rush hour is not a long way? Or how about Pendennis Mount, over the Severn River Bridge, to get to a mega-library on West Street? That 10 miles could take an hour and a half.
    My point is to have a library within three miles — within a bicycle ride, walk or short drive — of every person in the county.
Bay Weekly    How will you fill those libraries with the ever-expanding resources we use to get information and entertainment?
Steve Schuh    I’m willing to invest over the years to expand, to provide service and make sure each library is properly equipped with the major media that’s required by our surrounding community. The library with the largest book collection is Crofton, and I’m very comfortable with that.

Bay Weekly    Mr. Librarian, where does this leave you?
Skip Auld    The Annapolis library should be 48,000 square feet, not 25,000 like Crofton. The county executive really likes Crofton. Yet the library manager there said the day they opened in 2002, they were disappointed. The meeting room is too small. The aisles are narrow. Shelves are now packed with 82,000 books all jammed in …
    We now hope for an Annapolis library of 38,000 square feet. But we’re asking for 35,000 square feet because we think that’s the best we can do. We could build and stock a library that size for $26 to $28 million — but we’re not sure he’s going to meet us there.

Existing Libraries

listed by age, from newest

Odenton: 2004, 39,160 square feet
Crofton: 2002, 25,000 square feet
Mountain Road: 1994; 8,900 square feet
Maryland City: 1988; 15,214 square feet
Severn: 1986; 11,500 square feet
Broadneck: 1983; 11,950 square feet
Library headquarters: 1976; 26,800 square feet
Eastport/Annapolis Neck: 1979; 12,100 square feet
Severna Park: 1975; 20,500) square feet
Brooklyn Park: 1971; 12,500 square feet
Riviera Beach: 1971; 10,500 square feet
Deale: 1968; 8,730 square feet
Glen Burnie: 1969; 20,200 square feet
Linthicum: 1967; 11,083 square feet
Annapolis: 1965; 20,900 square feet