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From the Editor: Reading the future

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Posted on: September 10, 2013

- SUSIE CURRIE -

BY SUSIE CURRIE — I’ve had a library card as long as I can remember. My childhood library,  in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, was a rambling antebellum mansion, 26 rooms of fading Italianate glory with creaking staircases, hidden reading nooks and shelves that seemed to stretch to the moon. It was a wonderful introduction to the world of books.

My own three children have been going to the Hyattsville library since they were in strollers. For years, we were regulars at the weekly toddler storytimes, and looked forward to going through the overstuffed library bag full of new discoveries when we got home. Many children’s books on our own shelves found a place there because we first discovered them at the library. (Never underestimate the power of a good illustrator.)

 What awaits the young readers of tomorrow? The Hyattsville branch, which opened in 1964,  was the first one built as part of the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System. It is slated for a tear-down with a new one expected to open in 2016 in the same location, 6530 Adelphi Road. It’s safe to say that the new one will be very different from the one that opened nearly 40 years ago.

Architect Melanie Hennigan promised as much at an August public meeting on the library’s future. Hennigan is with Calverton-based Grimm + Parker, which specializes in designing libraries and is working on drawings for Hyattsville’s.

“These aren’t your parents’ libraries,” she said during a slideshow of the firm’s recent work. “For many people, they’ve become a ‘third place’ ” to go when not at home or work. So in today’s buildings, books share space with cafes, fireplaces, glass exteriors, islands of computer stations and dozens of outlet-equipped workspaces. 

If the Hyattsville branch is being designed for the next 40 years, it makes sense to see what younger users are looking for in a library. In June, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project released results of a study on the library habits of “digital natives,” Americans between the ages of 16 and 29 who have grown up with digital media.

Yes, virtually all of them spend time online. But they are also more likely than their elders to have read a printed book in the past year (75 percent to 64 percent). Among 16- and 17-year-olds, that number jumps to 85 percent.

 That’s not to say that younger library users shun technology there. Why would they, when they can get information in seconds that would have taken hours to find offline? It’s not surprising that 75 percent of the under-30s said that it was “very important” for libraries to provide free access to computers, Internet connections and research databases.

But the same number said that offering books for the public to borrow is just as important. Moreover, only 23% of younger users “strongly supported” moving books out of public areas to make room for technology centers and meeting rooms.

At the public meeting, one theme that kept coming up (besides the saucer; see cover story) was the importance of keeping the focus of the library on books — actual bound volumes, shelves of them, that can engage people in a way that screens don’t.

“A friend’s 10-year-old daughter says she comes to the library to find what she didn’t know she was looking for,” said one man. Let’s hope that future generations of Hyattsville readers will be able to say that.

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