How Columbia library spells relief HOWARD COUNTY

March 18, 1993

When asked just how bad the parking situation is at Columbia's Central Library, Marvin Thomas, the Howard County library director, erupts into gales of laughter. Not accustomed to such queries, Mr. Thomas knows what every county resident who has ever tried to find a parking space at the library knows full well.

"It's horrible," he says. "It's a calamity."

It's bad enough to have prompted county officials to build a new East Columbia library, which is scheduled to open this fall. When the paint dries and the doors open, patrons of the Central branch can breathe a sigh of relief. What the $8.2 million East Columbia branch will do is relieve crowding at no less than the eighth busiest library in the nation, where some 1.5 million books and other materials are circulated annually.

A smaller branch in Elkridge is also expected to help when it opens this summer, but it is the East Columbia branch that will handle the bulk of the overload. Of the five operating libraries in the county, most are significantly smaller than the Central branch, the heart of the system.

Not to swipe someone else's slogan, but given the enthusiasm Columbia residents have shown toward their library, it can also lay claim to being "The City That Reads."

According to Mr. Thomas, that enthusiasm was evident the day the Columbia branch opened in 1981.

Patrons have been known to circle the library parking lot for 20 minutes or more to find a space. Weekends and weekday evenings find the library jammed to capacity. Getting a popular book often means putting your name on a long, long waiting list.

And while most of the Central branch patrons are there for the reading material, being there is -- on a smaller scale than the shopping malls -- like going to the town hall.

It is a community gathering place, where teen-age friends congregate to write book reports and neighbors run into each other and simply chat.

The East Columbia branch will develop its own constituency, and will undoubtedly attract those no longer willing to brave the mayhem at the Central branch.

As long as they keep coming, it doesn't matter where they go.

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