Arbutus Library's passport application service a hit

Arbutus Library's passport service a hit for metro area residents

When Tiffany Brunson realized on the morning of April 4 that getting a passport from a post office requires an appointment, she was already halfway down Interstate 95 on her way from New Jersey to Maryland with her daughter.

"I called all the post offices today and they said they don't have it and I was going to cry," she said.

She had planned to take advantage of a day trip to the Baltimore area to obtain a passport for her daughter, who may have to travel to the British Virgin Islands for a family wedding in the near future.

Brunson is divorced from her daughter's father, who lives in Baltimore, and, with the requirement that both parents be present in order for a minor to get a passport, the opportunities to get the whole family together for the process are few and far between.

Thankfully, she said, she came across the Arbutus Library on a last-ditch Internet search of passport locations in the Baltimore area on her phone as she sat in her car on the side of the highway.

"I just called because I was desperate," Brunson said. After she made sure she could get the passport that day, she headed straight to Arbutus.

The libraryofficially began offering passport service Jan. 5. Three months later, the facility on Sulphur Spring Road has processed nearly 700 applications for new passports.

The Arbutus Library's venture into the passport business began over the summer, when Erin Oh, the library's assistant manager, found herself at the East Columbia branch of the Howard County Library with her family to get passports ahead of a family vacation. She was so happy with the service, said Bob Maranto, the Arbutus Library manager, that she proposed offering the service in Arbutus.

"She came back and she said, 'Hey, can we do this?'" Maranto said. "Within probably six months or less, we went from idea to reality."

For Brunson and her family, the library's process could not have been better. While they waited for a passport agent, she relaxed at a table while her daughter, Alexis, played a Wii video game with her ex-husband.

"It worked out really well," she said, adding that her daughter and her daughter's father got to use the wait for some quality time together.

After the applicant is called, either via page or by a free text message service the Arbutus Library offers, they are invited to sit down with one of the library's volunteer passport agents. The agent asks about the kind of passport they need, how soon they need it, takes the applicant's photo if they haven't brought their own, and fills out the remaining documentation for the application.

After the applicant has taken the oath that the information they have provided is accurate and complete, and both parties have signed the application, the paperwork is sent to the Department of State for official approval.

"When the person leaves here, basically their job from that point is to wait for the passport in the mail," said Maranto.

For the Barklaw family, of Arbutus, the speed of the library's service made the decision to go the Arbutus branch of the Baltimore County Public Library for their youngest daughters' passports easy.

Angela and Greg Barklaw had gone to the post office in the past for their own passports years ago. But the wait to get an appointment was lengthy and the downtime spent at the office was boring.

The family needed passports before a June trip to Jamaica and, with spring sports just beginning and the family's schedule growing more hectic by the day, this past weekend was the only free time on the schedule for them to get their passports.

"It was a matter of convenience," said Angela Barklaw.

In the future, she said, she will skip the post office and only come to the library for passports.

For the staff of the Arbutus Library, the benefits of offering the service are twofold. It brings in people who had never been to the branch and it gives staff a new way to help the community.

After gaining approval from the BCPL system to begin the service, Maranto and volunteers from his staff went to work on obtaining the training and certification needed to handle passport applications.

All of the library's full-time staff and several part-time volunteers took a class through the Department of State on what documents are necessary for an individual to obtain a passport and how to discern original birth certificates and other forms of identity.

"You get to meet a lot of different people going to different destinations," said Tina Pickens, a librarian who spends part of a day or two each week working as a passport agent. "Judging by the number of people that come, it's a service that they wanted and they needed."

When the library officially launched the service in January, said Maranto, the manager, it was a hit almost immediately.

On April 4, the flow of applicants was steady, with an occasional short line developing. The staff has worked with people planning to travel all over the world with some of the most common destinations in Europe, Pickens said.

Italy, in particular, is a popular choice, she said.

Maranto suspects that Arbutus is on the forefront of a movement he expects every library in the state to soon join.

"I sort of tip my hat to Howard County," he said, noting that they were the first library in the state to offer passports.

Since Howard County began offering the service at East Colombia in 2009, another Howard County branch has begun offering passports, as has a library in Harford County. The Carroll County Public Library plans to visit Arbutus at some point this month to look into opening passport services at one of its branches.

"I think the ball is really picking up speed now," said Maranto, as the Arbutus branch had processed 679 applications as of April 6.

The library offers passport services from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Branches of the Baltimore County Public Library also offers services people may not know about, Maranto said. For example, people can go to their local library for government job applications, cat and dog licenses, Section 8 housing forms, tax help, disabled driver tags and other services.

"Libraries are just like everybody else," he said. "We are looking at different ways of doing business."

Maranto added that he expects people to soon start expecting libraries to offer services similar to the passport application process, such as construction permits applications, for example.

In the future, he said, he sees libraries "being more of a portal of government services."

The Arbutus Library operates its passport service on a first-come first-serve basis, with no appointment necessary. Only applications for new passports are accepted, but forms are available for renewals. For information, go to bcpl.info.

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