With director's retirement, library turns a page Thomas to step down after 33 years

assistant to move up

June 30, 1996|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

Last year, when Howard County Library Director Marvin Thomas relocated his office to the east Columbia branch, he never bothered to settle in. That's because he knew that, after 33 years heading the library system, he'd be retiring this year.

In fact, by last July the seven-member county Board of Library Trustees already had interviewed and tapped the library's assistant director, Norma L. Hill, to replace him -- without a public search or much public notice.

Thomas, 65, officially retires tomorrow, handing over the library's reins to his longtime assistant, Hill.

Hill, also 65, has agreed to serve at least three years in the $94,000-a-year position. After that time, if she and the board are mutually satisfied with her performance, she will be invited to stay on.

Her appointment contrasts markedly with a national search recently conducted in Baltimore County to find a new head for its library system, a search that led to the selection of Jim Fish, the former head librarian of San Jose, Calif.

Fish competed for the job with almost three dozen applicants and in a final three-day evaluation and interview process.

Baltimore County officials say they conducted the national search because there was no heir apparent to head that library system; its assistant director also was retiring.

Hill had been assistant director of the Howard library since 1981, one year after joining the system as its selector of nonfiction material.

Hill says that to get the Howard job she went through an "extensive interview" with the library's trustees.

"They all fired questions at me for two hours at least," she said. "They just didn't hand me the position, if that's what people are thinking."

Said Salvador B. Waller, president of the trustee board: "Even if we would have done a national search, we wouldn't have found '' anyone more qualified than Norma."

And she has Thomas' backing. "Norma has the necessary qualifications," he said.

Thomas' job was to steer a rapidly growing library system. Hill's will be to manage the explosion in information technology.

During Thomas' tenure, everything about the library system expanded: the number of branches, library use, information services.

On his first day as library director -- July 1, 1963 -- there was one library branch, 10 percent of the county population were registered library users and the system's annual budget was $25,000.

Now, there are five branches (with a sixth planned to open in western Howard in 1999), 90 percent of residents are registered to use the library and the yearly budget totals $8.5 million.

"Marvin was lucky enough to be in a county that had the economics to build up that library system," said Charles W. Robinson, the director of Baltimore County's 15-branch system, who is retiring in September, also after 33 years.

"At the least [Thomas] should get credit for not messing it up and at the most for creating it."

Thomas originally figured he'd never stay very long in Howard County. He started in the library profession as a branch librarian in Baltimore City and then in Baltimore County, before becoming Howard's library director.

"At that point, I was serving more people in the Parkville branch [of Baltimore County] than in all of Howard County," Thomas said. "My original intent was to stay here two years and move on to a bigger system as a director. But everything started happening here."

Thomas attributes the system's successful growth to the county's heavy concentration of educated baby boomers, who demand a high quality library.

Though his tenure officially ends tomorrow, he will stay on for another two weeks or so as a citizen volunteer to complete some budget issues. Like the county school board and the community college, most of the library's funding -- about 85 percent -- comes from the county, but it operates independently from county government.

One of Hill's primary concerns will be keeping the planned construction of a library building in Glenwood on schedule so it will be open for business in 1999, she said.

"Funding isn't as available now as it was in the 1980s," Hill said. "It'll be a challenge, but I have the right skills and I'll manage."

Hill's main expertise is in the rapidly changing ways in which information can be made available though libraries.

"I knew technology would change the way libraries did business. My job will be to make the changes when it's right to do so," Hill said.

In doing that, she has a strong base to build on.

The library was the first in the country to create a network of CD-ROM databases in the late 1980s called INFO-LAN. The branches also offer access to the Internet and World Wide Web.

"New media do not destroy the old media," Thomas said. "They give individuals more avenues to get information."

The more information that library patrons can access from their home computers, he said, the less important library buildings become.

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