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PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY RICHARD FRIEND

EDITORIAL

Dude, Where's My Library?

The Changing Character of the Laurel Branch

Richard Friend worked as a clerical aide at the Stanley Memorial Library from 1987 to 1997.

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By Richard Friend  |  This article originally appeared in Voices of Laurel Spring 2022

I have a bone to pick with the Laurel Library. It pains me to say that, because this library has always been a very special place for me, and frankly, it’s the last place I thought I’d ever be disappointed in. But much like the Laurel Leader, which has become a shell of itself in the wake of a corporate takeover, the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System seems to be allowing bureaucracy to strip its local branches of the very important community connection they’d enjoyed for decades.

Like many of you, I practically grew up at the library as a child of the 1980s—doing homework with the aid of the Encyclopedia Britannica and other reference books in the years before any of us could even dream of something called “the internet.” 

My fondness for this place only grew when I started my very first part time job there as a clerical aide at only 14 years old—a job I enjoyed so much, I ended up keeping it all through high school and college. 

Years later, long after I’d gotten married and relocated to Northern Virginia, the library again became a valuable resource for me in creating my Lost Laurel website and book. For weeks, I drove to Laurel each Saturday to spend a few hours researching the back issue Laurel Leader newspapers that the library had kept for decades in both hard copy and on microfilm.

It was while researching those old newspapers back in 2012 that I noticed a few changes since the last time I’d visited the library some fifteen years earlier. That was to be expected, I figured—change is inevitable. First, there was only one staff member remaining from my days as an employee. The rest had relocated, retired, or sadly passed away. The new librarians (new to me, at least) were very friendly and helpful, but what they conveyed was curious: they couldn’t recall anyone else ever having come in to research those old newspapers, let alone use the microfilm machine. In fact, on several occasions, bewildered patrons noticed me going through the oversized bound newspapers and stopped to ask what they were, exactly. They thought I was extremely poor-sighted and that these were ridiculously large print books! We laughed, and then they were pleasantly surprised to learn that original Laurel Leader newspapers from the 1950s and earlier were actually available to peruse at the library. They’d had no idea.

That priceless newspaper archive was thankfully transferred to the Laurel Museum when the library closed temporarily during construction of its new building in 2014, along with its vast vertical file collection, local school yearbooks, and anything else directly related to local history. At the time, I remember thinking it odd that the library would suddenly decide to part with those materials despite having kept them for so many years. I was relieved that they weren’t throwing them away, but saddened to realize that without them, I probably wouldn’t have any reason to visit the library anymore.

I did return for the grand opening of the new building in 2016, of course. But in hindsight, that was really a turning point. Like many who eagerly explored the beautiful new facility that day, the first thought I had was, “Wait... what happened to all the books?” 

I’m getting a little ahead of myself here, though—you’re probably wondering what my gripe with the library is all about. It actually has to do with this very newspaper. If you’ve been following Voices of Laurel since our first quarterly issue in January 2020, you know that we chose locally-owned small businesses as places where you could pick up a free copy of the newspaper. Our idea was that this would help promote foot traffic to those businesses during the worst of the pandemic. As COVID’s grip loosened somewhat with the growing number of vaccinations in the area, we planned to begin shifting more newspapers into a single, more accessible location—and the Laurel Library seemed like the natural solution. 

After confirming that the branch would distribute the paper, I would routinely drop off a bundle personally with each new release and stop by in a few weeks to replenish the supply. However, it wasn’t until our last issue that I finally inquired about where, exactly, the newspapers were being placed in the library—because unlike in the Maryland City and Savage libraries, I hadn’t seen them anywhere, and others had expressed difficulty locating them. A circulation assistant took me out to the main lobby and into a small corridor that houses vending machines. Hidden there is a countertop that holds the library’s “giveaways”—free newspapers and other publications. Here, she explained, is where they put “all this kind of stuff.” 

I left that day with the idea that a small, indoor wire newspaper rack would be ideal for the lobby or entrance vestibule, both of which are otherwise empty. I purchased a rack, and emailed a photo of it to Laurel Branch Area Assistant Karin Luoma, explaining that The Laurel History Boys would like to place it someplace near the front entrance where it would be unobtrusive, but still more readily visible and accessible to patrons looking for Voices of Laurel. I assured her that we would maintain it ourselves and make sure that the supply is replenished weekly.

She replied rather cryptically:

“I appreciate your request and offer of a storage holder for the Voices of Laurel newspaper. However, our customers are now able to find the Voices of Laurel newspaper so much that we often run out of copies before the next issue is received.”

On the one hand, I was glad to hear that the newspapers were being taken, because even that information had been difficult to come by. Each time I’d dropped off additional copies, no one could definitively tell me whether we’d been giving them too many copies or too few. On the other hand, her response didn’t answer my question of whether we could place the rack in the lobby, and she didn’t respond to a follow up email. 

When the new issue was printed in January, Kevin Leonard and I showed up at the library to deliver a supply, and brought the newspaper rack with us in hopes of using it to start promoting Voices of Laurel with a new, more prominent pickup point. We met Karin that day, and it quickly became apparent that we would not be placing the rack in the library after all. Despite several ideal locations, she explained that the library wouldn’t allow anything that would “clutter” the space. 

While I assumed it wasn’t her decision to make, I found it disheartening that anyone in a managerial position at the Laurel Branch wouldn’t do more to help under the circumstances, especially with Voices of Laurel being an entirely volunteer effort produced by many within the Laurel community—and particularly in light of the Laurel Leader’s demise as a community newspaper, now devoid of any local input.  

On the drive home that evening, I realized that this actually wasn’t the first time in recent years that I’d experienced this surprising lack of community awareness from those now running the Laurel Library. I recalled the bureaucratic hoops I had to jump through just to donate copies of my first book, Lost Laurel, to the branch. The lengthy process involved me mailing copies of the book to the PGCMLS administrative offices in Largo myself, and waiting to be notified if they chose to accept them. I felt that the Laurel Library itself should have advocated for something like that.

I finally saw my books on the shelf the day the new building opened in 2016, and enjoyed ceremonially re-shelving them as I had done so many years ago as a clerical aide in the old building. But the experience left me with the distinct feeling that this was not the same library that I had known and loved. This was more bureaucratic—a satellite office of a large corporation, rather than a community-run library branch that knew and related to its hometown patrons.

How did this happen? When did it happen? To more closely examine the changing landscape of the Laurel Library, let’s take a brief look back at its full history.

 

Library Origins

More than half a century before its original construction at the corner of Seventh Street and Talbott Avenue, the Laurel Free Public Library opened in 1916 in the Patuxent Bank building in two rooms on the floor above the Post Office. Maintained by the Laurel Library Association, members were charged $1 per year. The library faced constant financial problems paying its rent until 1929, when it relocated to donated space at 384 Main Street—a two-room, one-story frame building less than a thousand feet in size that it shared with the Woman’s Club of Laurel, which remains there today as the sole occupant. The Laurel Library became the first branch to join the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System when it was organized in 1946.

 

Seventh and Talbott

The first library built at Seventh Street and Talbott Avenue, christened the Stanley Memorial Library after the land it sat upon was donated by the family of Charles H. Stanley, began construction in 1965 and was completed two years later by the Weiss Construction Company of Washington, DC for $219,200. It was designed by a young architect named Charles D. Belinky, A.I.A., who tragically died just six years later at age 42. The dedication was held on May 7, 1967, and speakers in attendance included Gladys Spellman (a Laurel resident and then-chairwoman of the Prince George’s County Commissioners, later to become a U.S. Congresswoman) and Mayor Merrill L. Harrison.

Local residents still recall the excitement of the modern new library and some of its innovative programs that went beyond just lending books. For a time, artwork—actual framed reproductions of paintings—could be checked out. Several folks who’d been kids in the late 1960s remember their parents coming home with a new painting to hang on the living room wall every couple of weeks, courtesy of the Laurel Library.

 

 
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(Top): Clerical aides Sujith Vijayan, Nancy Iliff, and Richard Friend at the Laurel Library 1993 expansion dedication. (Bottom): Friend at the 2016 grand opening of the new library, where he placed donated copies of his first book, Lost Laurel, on the shelves. 

PHOTOS COURTESY OF RICHARD FRIEND

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(Top): Before its current Seventh Street location, the library shared space with the Woman’s Club of Laurel at 384 Main Street. (Bottom): Librarian Elizabeth Fetty in 1958. PHOTOS COURTESY OF LAUREL HISTORICAL SOCIETY

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The Stanley Memorial Library around the time of its opening in 1967. 

COURTESY OF LAUREL HISTORICAL SOCIETY

The small wire newspaper rack intended for the Laurel Library lobby. RICHARD FRIEND

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Growing Pains—About Every 10 Years

The first big change came a decade later, when in 1977, then-branch manager Lillian Barker oversaw an aggressive two-week rearrangement of the entire collection, resulting in a more spacious and open layout. That layout served the library well, but by the late 1980s, the expanding collection—not to mention the expanding population—was rapidly outgrowing the building. In 1986 and 1988, Prince George’s County voters cleared the way for funding a 9,000 square foot expansion that nearly doubled the library’s size. That work was largely completed in 1992, with a dedication ceremony in 1993. I was part of the staff during that expansion, and vividly recall the all-hands-on-deck process of moving every book and piece of furniture.

 

Growing pains began again just barely into the new millennium. By this point, libraries across the country were beginning to experience a seismic shift in the types of services they offered, thanks to the emerging prevalence of the internet. Librarians found themselves assisting patrons less with finding books than they did with getting online, and making computers accessible became a priority. 

Coincidentally, among the computer users at the Laurel Branch in the summer of 2001 were several of the 9/11 terrorists, who’d been living in Laurel in the weeks leading up to the attacks. Staff members were later interviewed by FBI agents, and the library’s public-use computers were confiscated as evidence.

By the mid-2000s, the building was rapidly becoming obsolete in the wake of growing demand for public computer access. Discussions of building a new facility designed to better accommodate the digital age weren’t limited to the existing site, and some lobbied for the opportunity to relocate the library. BOLD, an acronym for Bring Our Library Downtown, became a spirited campaign by 2010 calling for the library to forego the Seventh Street location in favor of moving to the Main Street corridor—specifically, to the site now occupied by C Street Flats. Critics of that plan cited the inherent hazards of having a library—regardless of its chief holdings being books or digital media—situated so close to the Patuxent River in a notorious flood zone.

 

Out With the Old, In With the New

The old library closed on March 8, 2014, and reopened in a small temporary site at 8101 Sandy Spring Road behind the Laurel Municipal Center with a fraction of its collection available while construction on the new facility took place.

After a year’s worth of delays in selecting a contractor, the building was demolished on May 6, 2015. Thanks to Nardi Construction, I had the unique opportunity to take one last walk through just moments before the proverbial wrecking ball descended. Even in its vacant state of demolition, almost every square foot of that main floor held memories for me—memories of conversations and  laughs I’d shared with coworkers all those years ago. Seeing the walls come down was like losing an old friend, and the loss still hurts. 

The official groundbreaking for the new building took place on May 27, 2015, and its grand opening of the $14 million 31,000-square-foot facility was held with much fanfare on November 26, 2016. But despite the new library’s undeniable architectural beauty (the Grimm + Parker-designed structure won the 2018 AIA/ALA Building of the Year Award) and its countless technological upgrades, the most common reaction from visitors who’d spent any time in the previous building was, “What happened to all the books?”

 

New Trends in Library Usage

The general assumption was that the small number of books that had been available at the library’s temporary location during construction was itself a temporary thing. But patrons were surprised to learn that PGCMLS had, in fact, cut the book surplus significantly, citing a lack of circulation of over 70% of the volumes that had previously been on shelves. This paring down of collections became a system-wide thing, as other branches also experienced during their own renovations. And book reduction isn’t limited to P.G. County, but part of a rapidly changing trend in libraries across the country. Many traditional library services, like reference assistance, has declined despite an overall increase in public library usage over the past decade or more. Greater access to free public computers, free Wi-Fi, and digital materials account for the rise in usage. But ironically, as libraries like the Laurel Branch modernize, public funding tends to decline. When budgets are cut, libraries typically take the brunt before other government services.

But the optics of suddenly having so few books in this expansive new building remains jarring even today, more than five years after the grand opening. The shelves, shorter in both height and length than their older counterparts, are half full at most. And where great care had once been taken to separate mysteries, westerns, science fiction, and romance novels from general adult fiction books, they’re now all grouped together. Perhaps if PGCMLS had done a better job explaining the changing dynamics of library usage before the grand opening, the shock would have been less. But for years, the rallying call for a new library had been under the guise of having “outgrown” the old building. And the question remained—what became of all those old books? Curiously, branches of the nearby Howard County Library System that have also undergone major renovations in recent years managed to increase space without so drastically downsizing the number of available books in their collections.

When I had the idea to write this article, I emailed Karin Luoma again to ask if she or anyone from her staff could answer some questions about the evolving landscape that Laurel librarians have had to navigate. She responded, but only to direct me to the PGCMLS Public Relations and Marketing Department, headed by COO of Communication and Outreach, Nicholas Brown. Similarly, Mike DiFilippo of the nonprofit Friends of the Laurel Library didn’t answer any questions specifically, but noted that most organizational functions are now handled at the senior management and administrative levels within PGCMLS rather than local library staff.

Nicholas was kind enough to provide many insightful statistics for me, but in times past, a branch manager would’ve simply pulled that data from a physical annual report and been able to provide an interpretation based on their personal experience overseeing the branch. That’s where bureaucracy shows itself again, and the disconnect from what was once a truly community-oriented library. To this point, Brown, who noted that the 2016 opening day collection included 50,000+ items, reported that PGCMLS “(does) not have data available at present about the size of the collection at Laurel prior to the closure of the old branch.” However, I found a Gazette Community News article commemorating the Laurel Branch’s 90th anniversary from September 2000 indicating that the shelves were stocked at that time with “about 170,000.” According to Brown, when PGCMLS opens a new branch, the physical colletion that floats from the branch is completely replaced with new copies. Books that haven’t circulated within 24 months are deaccessioned, which he says has become standard practice for a “popular” materials library—a trend throughout the U.S.

Brown notes that with the shift to eBooks and other digital materials, PGCMLS has added thousands of additional digital titles to the collection, including some 20,000+ ebooks and 10,000+ streaming films, which isn’t necessarily evident on the physical shelves at branches. But ironically, for libraries, the cost of digital materials has become significantly higher than print copies due to the rising cost of licensing fees from publishers.

Likewise, the physical reference materials that were once the backbone of most local libraries are largely a thing of the past. Many books that were once printed are now only available digitally, which allows the benefit of databases that provide updated information in real time. Gone are the days when libraries had to purchase costly new reference books each time the previous edition became outdated. Virtual reference can also now be accessed by multiple people simultaneously online, whereas a single printed reference book could only be viewed by one patron at a time.

As a clerical aide some 25+ years ago, one of my frequent duties was to run down to the basement to retrieve back issue newspapers and magazines, of which the Laurel Branch kept hundreds of titles. That’s another service that Brown says was eliminated more than a decade ago. “It was extremely expensive and it was receiving almost no usage.” By the way, if you hadn’t noticed, the new building doesn’t even have a basement.

On the surface, the numbers seem to defy logic. The old branch, with its modest 23,000 square feet of space, held approximately 200,000+ items at the time it closed. Despite being 33% larger, the new building only has a physical collection of about 53,600 items currently, with a future capacity of 80,000 items, according to the PGCMLS Builds website. But studies show that this is the trend of the modern library—today’s patrons are simply more interested in popular new titles and accessing information online than they are in having libraries be a repository of countless physical books. But where PGCMLS has made great technological strides, the growing administrative control over every aspect of the branches belies their vision statement: 

“We provide a collaborative foundation within the community for all Prince Georgians to create the world they want to see.”

I think back to the years that I worked at the Laurel Branch, and the wonderful people who worked there. From the clerical aides, to the circulation staff, to the librarians, to the branch manager, the late Dianne Ashworth—we all made sure that the library reflected and served the Laurel community, and that the people who came into that building were treated, well, like the neighbors they were. Not everything was mandated by PGCMLS Administration. Case in point, one of the librarians actually selected the interior paint color during the 1992 expansion. (A color called “Cracked Ice,” in case you’re interested in some particularly obscure Laurel Library history). But most importantly, if there was information that benefitted the community, the library staff made sure it was easy to find. The contrast today is striking, with greater importance seemingly placed on the lobby remaining empty and pristine. I don’t think that was something anyone had to “clear” with Administration back in the day—it was something that was simply expected of them. 

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Mayor Merrill Harrison speaks during the 1967 dedication of the Stanley Memorial Library. LAUREL NEWS LEADER

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In a photo from 1989, Branch Manager Dianne Ashworth holds a plaque presented to the Laurel Branch Staff in recognition of outstanding performance. From left to right are Yvonne Harris, Pauline Apperson, Shirley Muney, Dianne Ashworth, Nancy Erskine, Carl Keehn, Peggy Ransom, and Mary Downing Jacob. 

PHOTO COURTESY OF RICHARD FRIEND

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The library’s 1993 expansion moved the main entrance to the north elevation, facing the parking lot. PGCMLS

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Longtime maintenance man Tom Acra and librarian Brenda Hill enjoy some downtime at the information desk in 1993. The library’s robust reference section behind them included local phone directories, encyclopedias, stock market indexes, and more—much of which is only accessible online today. RICHARD FRIEND

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Despite “outgrowing the old building,” the beautiful new library’s emphasis on its digital collection saw its number of physical books on shelves reduced by more than 70 percent. Local staff today have no creative control over individual branches—PGCMLS Administration now strives for system-wide uniformity, which has increased bureaucracy. © DOURON

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A September 2000 article commemorating the Laurel Branch's 90th anniversary indicated that the library's physical collection at that time numbered around 170,000 books. 

© GAZETTE COMMUNITY NEWS

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The spacious lobby and entrance vestibule of the new building. Hidden in the vending machine corridor is a countertop for giveaway publications, including Voices of Laurel

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Even the simple act of phoning the library has become unnecessarly complicated. While the telephone number is the same as it’s always been, dialing 301-776-6790 no longer rings a librarian at the Laurel Branch. Instead, you’re transferred to the “Ask a Librarian” call center. I called to ask if the library had Maryland tax forms, because they too were nowhere to be found in the lobby. I was put on hold while the call center phoned the Laurel Branch. How, I ask, is that more efficient than simply being able to call the branch directly? It certainly wasn’t any help to me. Before the operator came back on or transferred me to the Laurel Branch, the call disconnected anyway. I wasn’t surprised.

To be sure, the Laurel Library still does plenty of good things—there are countless online resources and programs that staff can assist with. And the building itself is indeed an architectural gem. But as a former employee, it’s impossible for me not to compare today’s library to the old one that I knew so well. Not just the building or staff, mind you, but the overall character; the soul of the library, if you will. And the soul of this library has changed from the time I worked here. 

This feeling was confirmed not only by my recent dealings with the current staff managing the Laurel Branch and the PGCMLS Public Relations and Marketing Department, but with multiple former employees who validated all of my suspicions of growing bureaucracy. From the top down and from the inside out, there is little trace of the library that once put its community first: librarians who were given the creative freedom to develop programs that they knew local residents would relate to, and staff who would advocate for a community newspaper like Voices of Laurel to be given a more visible and accessible pickup point.  

Nicholas Brown added that PGCMLS “very much appreciate(s) the important work that Voices of Laurel and various other local publications are doing to highlight local news and library offerings,” and that they are “happy to provide the public with access to community publications at (their) branches.” He noted that each branch has a designated area for such publications, and that “we are not able to provide priority/preferential placement for one community publication over another.” 

With the Laurel Leader now part of a large corporate portfolio with zero input from the Laurel community, Voices of Laurel is filling the void as best we can. But local organizations, including not only the library but the City of Laurel, Laurel TV, and others, can be doing much more to help make residents aware of this newspaper. Allowing a small rack in the library’s spacious lobby would be a great start, helping visitors find it more easily.

 

As a Voices of Laurel reader, please let the Laurel Library Area Manager know your thoughts.