- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 3, 2007

HAGERSTOWN, Md. — Librarians and lobbying don’t always mix, but Mary Baykan is showing them the way.

Her work in securing substantial funding increases for Maryland public libraries in two consecutive legislative sessions helped win Mrs. Baykan the 2007 National Librarian of the Year award from Library Journal, the only independent trade journal of the library world.

Mrs. Baykan has been director for 12 years of the Washington County Free Library in Western Maryland. Inspired during her adolescence in Houston by President John F. Kennedy’s call to public service, Mrs. Baykan has combined her love of learning, passion for politics and outgoing nature into a persuasive style.

And she’s given her colleagues a tool — a public-opinion survey that asks people how they feel about their local libraries. The Maryland Library Association’s first such survey, conducted in 2003 by a respected polling firm, found that 90 percent of Marylanders considered public libraries a good public investment, and 92 percent thought that having a public library nearby would help stabilize or improve home property values.

“What that Maryland poll showed us is that people love and value their libraries, and they want them in their communities,” Mrs. Baykan said during an interview in her cluttered office on the second floor of the central library in downtown Hagerstown, which has a population of 38,000.

As volunteer leader of the state association’s legislative panel, Mrs. Baykan used the poll to lobby the General Assembly for a four-year boost in operating funds in 2005 and a $5 million construction-grant program in 2006. Both bills passed unanimously, leaving librarians in awe.

“For that to happen two years in a row is really quite significant,” said Maryland Library Association Executive Director Margaret Carty. She called Mrs. Baykan “the best strategist I’ve ever dealt with.”

Other states hope to emulate Maryland’s success by using Mrs. Baykan’s methods. The New Jersey Library Association will conduct a similar survey this spring, based on a presentation Mrs. Baykan made at a state conference, Executive Director Patricia Tumulty said.

“To some extent, librarians are not necessarily people who know how to phrase the value of our work into levels of support,” Mrs. Tumulty said. “What Mary has taught us is that it’s very important to cite the people that you serve as your advocates.”

Service is a constant theme in Mrs. Baykan’s rhetoric, whether she’s promoting library Internet connectivity or touting libraries as redevelopment anchors in struggling downtowns such as Hagerstown’s.

She recalled having her idealism aroused by Mr. Kennedy during a speech in Houston’s Rice University Stadium in September 1962. Mrs. Baykan, then a middle-school student, was in the packed stadium where Mr. Kennedy described his vision for the U.S. space program.

Fourteen months later, Mrs. Baykan saw Mr. Kennedy again as his motorcade was on its way to Dallas, where he was assassinated the next day.

“He had great impact on me,” she said. “John Kennedy and then his brother, Robert, really believed strongly that public service was the highest calling or aspiration that you could be called to do, and I looked at that and said, ‘OK, what can I do?’ ”

Although she still counts Mr. Kennedy as a profound influence, Mrs. Baykan has a new hero in Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates. In addition to donating millions to equip libraries with free computer and Internet services since 1997, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has become an advocate for libraries promoting economic development.

A foundation-funded study released in January by the Urban Institute concludes that libraries make communities stronger by increasing literacy, providing worker training and anchoring commercial development by drawing people downtown like big department stores attract shoppers to malls.

“Bill Gates gets it,” Mrs. Baykan said, “that we are a major, major component of whether or not this country will be globally competitive in the coming years.”

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