Marvin Thomas' libraries Howard County: Retiring chief built system to suit booming suburb.

July 18, 1996

WHEN MARVIN THOMAS became director of the Howard County public library, John F. Kennedy was president and the "system" consisted of a single branch in Ellicott City. It catered to a small fraction of the county's population; one in 10 residents held a library card.

Three decades later, the retiring librarian has good reason to be proud.

The system now boasts five branches and circulates 2.6 million items a year. It operates on an $8.5 million budget -- 340 times the size of the budget back on July 1, 1963.

The 65-year-old Mr. Thomas has been a silent fixture among administrators in Howard government, known for his vast collection of headwear and his soft-spoken but effective advocacy of public libraries.

He stepped down this month after 33 years. He took Howard County's library from having the lowest per-capita circulation in the state to third, behind Carroll and Baltimore counties.

Now, 90 percent of residents have cards, and the Central branch in Columbia is among the nation's busiest. The Frederick Road library, which had been open only a year when Mr. Thomas took over, metamorphosed from a 5,000-square-foot building to the busy Charles E. Miller branch with 23,000-square feet. The system added two locations in Columbia and branches in Savage and Elkridge. A sixth is due to open in growing western Howard in 1999.

The library was the first in the country to create a network of CD-ROM databases. Residents with home computers and modems can dial into the library's card catalog or use it to patch into a text-only version of the Internet.

Mr. Thomas has had a much lower profile than Charles W. Robinson, the controversial director of the Baltimore County public library who also is retiring after 33 years. But like Mr. Robinson, he has kept his system in stride with developments in technology, helping patrons gain access to current information while keeping many traditional favorites.

His successor, Norma L. Hill, already has helped to improve the library as his long-time assistant. Her task now is to continue the momentum.

We wish her success in the tough act of succeeding Marvin Thomas, who helped make Howard a county that reads.

Pub date: 7/18/96

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