Library marks 50 years of branching out Baltimore County today celebrates creation of its system

November 09, 1998|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

When Baltimore County's tiny community libraries merged into one public system 50 years ago, the Towson branch was in an old house so small that books were kept in the bathtub.

After the merger, the first director, Richard Minnich, had to drive to downtown Baltimore each week to borrow books his readers wanted -- from the city's Enoch Pratt Free Library.

A half-century later, the county's 16-branch system -- which celebrates its anniversary today -- circulates more books than the Pratt and is eyeing expansion to keep up with demand and technological changes.

"It's no longer strictly about books," said library Director Jim Fish, who heads the institution at a time when libraries must begin thinking about innovations such as electronic books and online book clubs.

In branch after branch, computers providing Internet access to cyber-savvy patrons crowd book stacks, making it difficult for staff to help and supervise users, said Fish.

Library officials would like to have room to place the computers in one area, but in many cases, the layout of the buildings makes that difficult. The Reisterstown branch is a former school, and the most modern branch, White Marsh, was built in 1987, before widespread Internet use.

Those factors, along with issues such as the lack of a branch in the fast-growing Owings Mills area, have library officials considering a major modernization. "We're doing a master plan for library facilities looking 20 years into the future," Fish said.

Such a path would have been hard to imagine in 1948, when the newly chosen library directors asked the prestigious Pratt to manage the fledgling system -- only to be rebuffed by the Pratt board, which feared a drain on its resources.

"Pratt was the big potato, and they knew they were," recalled Nettie B. Taylor, 84, who was supervisor of public libraries in Maryland at the time.

By the 1960s, the tables had turned, with the county system outstripping the Pratt's circulation. The county's first modern branch opened in Catonsville in 1963, at a cost of $650,000.

By 1992, county branches were distributing more materials to city residents than the Pratt, said former Director Charles W. Robinson, who headed the county system for 33 years.

The library, which has an annual budget of $26 million, circulates more than 10 million items each year and has bounced back from the recession years of the early 1990s, when money woes forced the closing of eight mini-branches and the Loch Raven branch.

In the early years, Robinson and others in the county system helped build circulation by buying popular books and displaying them as a bookstore might.

"The new Cockeysville library reminded me of shopping at Bloomingdale's, with the neon and the signs up and easy to read," said Patricia F. Turner, who was the first African-American library board member. "It's what the patrons want, not what we think they should read."

One sign of success: Circulation is nearly twice the national average for systems serving between 500,000 and 1 million people, according to the Public Library Association.

At the same time, Robinson and his career deputy, Jean Barry Molz, made management changes the public knew less about.

Instead of having specialized children's and adult librarians, the county created one staff pool. All the books were purchased centrally instead of each branch ordering what it wanted.

Fish vows to keep the system headed in the same philosophical direction as it works to keep up with changes in technology.

"I think the library's fundamental missions remain the same: to promote literacy and be an extremely reliable source of information, as well as a social gathering place," Fish said.

The social element is on display each month at the busy Catonsville branch library.

One recent morning, a demonstrative 20-month-old Deesha Perry, her mother, Diane, and a dozen other toddlers and their mothers gathered for one of the county system's newest programs, "Little Wonders Story Time," for children younger than 23 months.

The 20-minute program of songs and rhymes is offered only at the Catonsville branch.

Valerie Hamlin, 30, of Owings Mills recently attended the story session with her 14-month-old daughter, Emily.

"I think it's a good chance for her to get a little exposure to other kids, and I've actually learned a few things here," said Hamlin.

In honor of the Baltimore County library's 50th anniversary, all branches will offer free refreshments from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. today.

The Randallstown branch will feature 30 local authors at 7 p.m.; Catonsville will offer face painting and caricatures from 7 p.m. to 8: 30 p.m.; former Orioles' radio announcer Jon Miller will appear at the Cockeysville branch at 7 p.m.; and the Woodlawn branch will hold a free magic show from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Pub Date: 11/09/98

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