In 1983, an obscure library science journal conducted a poll of its subscribers and came up with a rather surprising finding: The library branch that had the highest annual circulation of books and other take-home materials was not in New York City or any other major city. It was the central branch of the Howard County Library in Columbia.

To this day, the library's reputation as one of the busiest in the nation -- nearly 1.3 million items were checked out from there last year -- is an honor to which Howard's numerous bibliophiles proudly cling. No one knows for sure whether the branch has been displaced from its top spot by readers elsewhere. But until they hear anything to the contrary, they say, they will continue their boasts.

"We haven't done anything drastic like turn away patrons, and are expanding our collection all the time," said Marvin Thomas, the soft-spoken director of Howard's six-library system. "I'm assuming the record still stands." Thomas credits the Columbia branch's success to the well-educated and highly motivated citizenry of Howard, where three out of five residents own a library card.

Residents who have tried in vain to grab one of the facility's too-few parking spaces (the library's key deficiency and one that is soon to be corrected) affectionately joke that with no place to put their wheels, they have no choice but to take their favorite novel, record or videocassette home with them.

Another factor contributing to the library's popularity in the past has been the lack of comparable services in other parts of the county. The library's board of directors is hoping to correct that by finding larger quarters for the community libraries in Elkridge and Savage, and possibly building another branch to serve the eastern part of Columbia.

In the meantime, Thomas and his staff have continued to rake in the honors. Earlier this year, Washingtonian magazine named Thomas as the "best bureaucrat" in Howard County. More recently, the U.S. Department of Education selected the library's activities for infants and children up to three years of age as one of 62 media programs recognized for their excellence.