February 16, 2018

Librarian of the Year 2007: Mary Baykan

By John N. Berry III — Library Journal, 01/15/2007

Over a dozen years as director of Maryland’s Washington County Free Library (WCFL), Hagerstown, Mary Baykan convinced county officials to take the library budget up to the more than $4 million it is now. Meanwhile, on the state level, she was the spearhead of the initiative to hire a nationally known pollster, Potomac, Inc., to survey Maryland residents about their perceptions of libraries. The survey found that libraries were rated their most desired community asset. Then, as legislation chair of the Maryland Library Association (MLA), Baykan persuaded the state’s library workers to take that message to legislators. That resulted in the largest increase in library support in the state’s history. A dollar per capita increase in library support was voted every year for four years, and the budgets of the state’s regional libraries were doubled. In an unprecedented show of support, the bill passed unanimously by both houses of the Maryland legislature and was signed by the governor. Money for capital projects, renovating libraries and building new ones—something the state had not done before—was approved next.

Those local and state-level accomplishments are more than enough to crown Mary Baykan the 2007 LJ Librarian of the Year, but they are only part of the story.

Support at the capitol

The results of the 2003 Potomac, Inc., survey pushed for by Baykan and funded by a grant from the Maryland State Library under Irene Padilla, “blew everyone away.” Potomac, Inc., gave each county its own set of statistics. Librarians used those to demonstrate to county councils, city officials, and other leaders the value of libraries. “We have never seen a stronger sense of advocacy in any poll. It gave us a very effective tool and helped us build a very strong political force,” Baykan says. She was asked to join the legislative committee of MLA soon after she arrived in Washington County. After one meeting, when the previous chair retired, she was elected chair and has served ever since. Over the years, she has built close relationships with those who wield power at the state capitol.

“Our lady of the library is Sheila Hixson,” says Baykan. Hixson is a delegate to the state legislature and chairs the crucial Ways and Means Committee. The president of the Maryland State Senate, Mike Miller, is also a very strong supporter.

A foot soldier

Like so many librarians, Baykan’s library career began at the support-staff level. “When I was young, you could work part-time and earn enough to go to college,” Baykan says. She majored in political science at the University of Houston, TX, and worked as a student employee in the university library all through college. That was in 1969, and the noted Edward Holley, who became dean of the School of Library and Information Science at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill and president of the American Library Association, was the library director. The assistant director, Charles Churchwell, who went on to direct the library at Brown University, was Baykan’s mentor. She went to Churchwell after graduation to say she had not chosen a career but would like a permanent job at the library until she could decide. He hired her. “He liked me,” Baykan says. “I looked up to him because of what he managed to accomplish.” Within a year, Baykan realized she was already working in the career she wanted. After four years, she moved to the University of Texas Health Sciences Center, in the Graduate School of Public Health in Houston, taking a position in the library at the Texas Medical Center. She learned not only deeper librarianship but management and administration from Stephanie Normann, the well-known director of the library, now retired.

When her husband took a job in Florida, Baykan sought a library job there. Academic library spots were scarce, so she accepted an offer from the Palm Beach County Public Library System (PBCPLS).

“I think Kathy Perinoff [assistant director, PBCPLS] hired me because I could drive a truck,” Baykan recalls. She worked as both “a floater” working in different branches and drove the bookmobile. “I didn’t have a library degree yet; I was a foot soldier,” she says.

Baykan planned to switch jobs when an academic library position opened up. However, after six months at PBCPLS, Baykan says, “I was absolutely hooked! Unlike academic reference work, every day I could count on at least two or three questions I had never heard before in my entire life.”

A sense of history

The University of South Florida started an LIS program on the East Coast, and Baykan earned an MLS there in 1981. Ultimately, she worked her way up to become director of the Central Library at West Palm Beach.

In 1995, she became director of the WCFL, headquartered in Hagerstown, and executive director of the Western Maryland Public Libraries, one of the state’s four regional systems. She delights in having become the director of the library “that was run by Mary Titcomb, the woman who founded bookmobiles.” Washington County claims to have launched the first bookmobile in the country. It was a one-horse wagon, which, according to Baykan, operated until it got hit by a train. (Horse and driver were saved, but the wagon was obliterated.) Pictures of it are available online via one of Baykan’s other achievements, the establishment of a virtual library (www.whilbr.com) that features materials and pictures from the historical WCFL collections.

Technology as a political tool

Among the challenges when Baykan arrived at WCFL 12 years ago was flat funding that had persisted for years and a threat from the state to close the regional library. The central library, built in 1966, had not changed since then. It had a telephone system that transferred calls into the abyss. The vendor was pulling the plug on the automated system. One-third of the lighting fixtures at the main building were burned out. The county commission had not built a library in 100 years. “We had some of the worst facilities in the state,” Baykan says. “Our Smithburg Branch looked like a cottage out of the movie The Quiet Man, and I fully expected John Wayne or Maureen O’Hara to emerge from it at any time.”

There was no Internet provider (IP) when Baykan arrived at Washington County. She had read about the SAILOR system, but was surprised that network access existed to the main library in Hagerstown but wasn’t turned on. The library was the only government entity that had connectivity. The state library said WCFL could give Internet service to the city and county governments, and an Appalachian Regional Commission grant paid for the first server, set up in the library because it had the pipeline. The Washington County Public Network was born, and it became a fiber backbone throughout the entire Hagerstown downtown. The library is still the IP for city and county government and now also the Board of Education. WCFL also provides the Internet to the schools.

“We have a jumping computer information department. It helped us up our operating budget from about $1.5 million to over $4 million from all sources. It made the library a major player. Until that time the county had us in the budget as a ‘charitable organization,’ but we quickly became a central educational service along with the community college and the Board of Education. We went from a feel-good charity to an essential education service,” Baykan proudly announces.

When WCFL became the county technology resource, the place where people went who wanted help with it, everyone began to see the library in a different way. “That is how I worked to change the local perspective,” Baykan explains.

A transformed system

Baykan has become fascinated with the history of the county and the library she manages. The Boonesborough Branch, named after Daniel Boone’s cousin George, is in a bank building. “We got the part with the vault, but City Hall got the rest rooms,” Baykan says. A new building is under construction there now. There was no library at Clearspring, so a new one was built.

WCFL is a very old, historical system, fundamentally serving a rural community but one that is currently evolving into a suburb of the Beltway. Washington County lies 60 miles northwest of Washington, DC, and 60 miles due west of Baltimore. South Mountain separates the county from those urban centers. The Civil War battle of Antietam, possibly the bloodiest in U.S. history, was fought in Washington County. Just across the river is Harpers Ferry, and down the road is Gettysburg.

The area was considered an Appalachian county for years. At one time WCFL received more grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission but has moved away, economically, from the poverty of Appalachia. The current county population is about 146,000, and WCFL now has seven branches and a bookmobile with the largest circulation of any in Maryland.

Under Baykan, WCFL has built two new facilities and has a third under construction. It operates on a SIRSI platform, its third automation system since she arrived.

Tools of the trade

In addition to that MLS, Baykan picked up other useful educational credentials and new tools for management and politics by getting her MBA at Frostburg State University, MD, and then being chosen to participate in the Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. JFK and his brother Robert were heroes to Baykan so it was truly motivating for her to learn political fundamentals under Dan Fenn, who was staff assistant in JFK’s White House.

“You are all very smart people,” Fenn said in class. “You all had a choice in life. You could have gone out to private industry and chosen a career of making the blue in Cheer bluer. Instead, you chose to go out and fight the bull.” That thought still inspires Baykan.

Motivated by Maryland

Among the first calls Baykan made when she moved to Maryland was to the famous Nettie Taylor, the state librarian who has motivated every Maryland leader for decades. Taylor gave her the political, geographical, and professional lay of the land and a huge dose of inspiration. Baykan is grateful for the incredibly supportive professional spirit in Maryland and got tremendous help from leaders like Carla Hayden at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore and Jim Fish, her counterpart in Baltimore County. “We couldn’t succeed without the strong support of Citizens for Maryland Libraries (CML) and leaders like [CML’s] Mary Mallory,” Baykan quickly adds.

She is equally inspired by what she calls “the yeomen” librarians and paraprofessionals on the library desks all over the state. “I worked as a paraprofessional, and I know just how dedicated and professional they are,” Baykan says. “I value that now.”

Baykan also remembers other major players from Maryland, like Agnes Griffin (Montgomery County PL, now retired), Rivka Sass (Omaha PL, LJ’s 2006 Librarian of the Year, and once at the Maryland State Library), Valerie Gross (Howard County PL), and Lynn Wheeler (Carroll County PL). The sentiments go the other way, too: Raineyl Coiro (Eastern Shore Regional Library), Mallory, and Wheeler nominated Baykan for this award.

“It doesn’t matter in Maryland whether you come from a tiny, one-library system or a mega-library system with a budget of millions. Everyone is in it together,” says Baykan. “The camaraderie and mutual support and genuine affection the Maryland library directors have for each other is something I have never experienced in Texas or Florida where I have worked. That’s the wonderful thing about Maryland: everyone is so mutually supportive. When one boat rises here, all boats rise.”

Author Information
John N. Berry III is Editor-at-Large, LJ