A combined library and recreation center is expected to open in Wheaton this summer. Credit: Montgomery County Government rendering

Montgomery County’s proposed budget for libraries will allow the county to fulfill a promise to open a new Wheaton library and recreation center on time and maintain library services.

In his $5.7 billion budget plan released last week, County Executive Marc Elrich included $43 million for the 22-branch library system, 0.36 percent more than this year’s funding.

“We have found library use increasing, and people continue to look at them as a resource,” he said.

“There won’t be any cuts to services or resources, or anything else like that, for our customers … we’re definitely not going to have impacts that will affect our services at all,” said Anita Vassallo, acting director of the Department of Public Libraries.

Vassallo said that the department did not request an increase for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Elrich included $800,000 for the Wheaton Library and Recreation Center, a combined facility on Georgia Avenue between Arcola and Hermitage avenues, that includes a gymnasium, indoor walking track, a pottery studio and a used book store operated by the nonprofit Friends of the Library.

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“In other years, we’ve delayed openings in order to save the operating costs, and so I could’ve left Wheaton empty and put another $900,000 into operations,” Elrich said. “We decided that we promised the community we’re going to do the rec center and library, the thing’s finished – I’m not going to leave a finished building vacant, so we’re doing it.”

The library is one of the busiest in the county system.

Elrich highlighted libraries’ importance as centers of digital research, and spoke about his younger days visiting the library and being limited to only books on the shelves.

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“I think we’re well aware that a lot of our citizens actually don’t have access to the internet, or have limited access,” he said. “In the age of the internet, the ability to do comprehensive, complex research is far simpler, so I feel like libraries haven’t lost anything in their importance.”

Vassallo noted that she’s seen high demand for the libraries’ electronic resources over the last several years, including downloadable books, audio books and streaming services.

“Another thing where we see an uptick is in the use of our small study rooms, our collaboration rooms,” she said. “People really like to come to the library as a place to be, whether it’s a small study group, or some of them are a group that meets once a week to play Scrabble … someone who’s maybe working on their master’s degree and their house is a little noisy, they want to come to the library.”

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The slight increase for libraries comes in the wake of Elrich’s proposed $1.27 million reduction in the library budget in January during a fiscal 2019 budget adjustment. That reduction, he explained, came from not filling open positions.

“We didn’t actually cut services … rather than filling positions, we let them stay vacant. They were already not there,” he said.

Vassallo said the proposed library budget will not allow vacant positions to be filled, as all county departments were asked to reduce their budgets.

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“We have been asked to keep some jobs open … we always have jobs that we need to fill, because people come and go. We have retirements, people are promoted within, so there’s a certain number of jobs that we’re going to need to keep open, but we should not really see any kind of an impact from that … it’s just sort of normal business, to turn over within the department.”

There were 33 million uses of library services countywide in fiscal 2018, an increase from 26.5 million the previous year, according to county data. The count includes the number of materials in circulation, in-person attendance and technology usage within its definition of library services.

Fiscal 2018 saw a little over 10 million combined items in circulation and materials used within libraries, specifically – a decrease from 11.2 million in 2017, according to county data.

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According to the American Library Association, there were 1.4 billion in-person visits to public libraries around the country in 2016, a number that remained relatively unchanged between 2014 and 2015.