ELLICOTT CITY, MD. -- It has been 131 years since Howard County gained independence from Anne Arundel County, but few people have put its past down on paper -- that is, until this year.

In a sudden publishing flurry, three books on Howard County's history were released recently, bringing hundreds of photographs, folk tales and remembrances to the public for the first time.

While the books vary in focus -- one is a pictorial history, another charts the genealogy of the county's prominent families, and the third tells the story of blacks in the county -- their authors were all seeking to preserve some of the history that is often locked up in family scrapbooks.

When Alice Cornelison, a nurse and project director for the Howard County NAACP, set out to research the history of blacks in Howard for Maryland's 350th birthday celebration three years ago, she was surprised to find no references in any books. "I knew they were here," she said, "I could see them." So, with funding from the NAACP, she wrote a book herself.

Called "History of Blacks in Howard County, Maryland," the book was co-written by Silas Craft and Lillie Price and covers a wide variety of subjects from recipes ("For Fried Chicken When Your Mother Is Not Home") to the current state of race relations in the county.

"We wanted to make the transition between old and new," Cornelison said. "The beauty of history is that it's never really finished."

In her research, Cornelison said, she discovered many people with "stories to tell." Tape recorder in hand, she went out to hear them. What she gathered were stories of daily life. "The book is about ordinary things that ordinary people do to survive," she explained. "Not history that relates names and dates, but the history of just being -- of canning, mending, talking."

At first, residents of the black enclaves of the county, such as Daisy and North Laurel, were skeptical about opening up, Cornelison recalled. After one or two visits, though, "the word got around" and people began to come forth with their stories, she said.

One of Cornelison's goals is to see her book used as a base for other studies of black history in the county. "What we have in the book is basic data, so someday somebody can research further," she said. "I hope it happens soon. A lot of history dies every day in nursing homes because no one is there to tap it."

Joetta Cramm, author of "Howard County: A Pictorial History," is also trying to recapture some of the all-but-forgotten past.

"The county was very rural and poor. The world kind of bypassed it," she said. She had trouble digging up photos in the Library of Congress because so few professional photographers documented the county in the past, she said.

Cramm, a legislative assistant to the Howard County Council, had been teaching county history to students at Howard County Community College for 12 years, so it seemed natural to assemble her vast slide collection into a book. "Unless you took the class, you wouldn't get to see these photographs, so people didn't think these pictures existed," Cramm said. She chose the visual approach because pictorial histories are popular in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and because people are "oriented toward pictures today."

It was in the forgotten boxes in attics and archives where Cramm said she found most of her material, such as the 1924 photograph of a parade float with the banner that boasted, "Howard County, the Home of Good Roads, Good Schools and Good People," and the lithograph of the once-grandiose Patapsco Female Institute that advertised the school's proximity to Baltimore but "without any of its evils."

Cramm also has chronicled the fires, floods and family reunions that have marked the passage of time in Howard County. And she has included the timeless events: the father lounging in a hammock surrounded by his children, and the boy tending to his hogs at the 4-H county fair.

"Residents played a significant role" in her research, she said. "I went to old-timers and said, 'Hey, do you have anything I could use?' " And more often then not, she said, they headed to their scrapbooks for photographs to share.

Celia Holland, one of the county's senior historians, who wrote "Old Homes and Families of Howard County," used a similar method of research. Twenty-five years ago, she began traveling the highways and back roads of the county for information to include in her column for the local newspaper. These columns, focusing on the historic estates in the county and the families that occupied them, ran at a critical time for preservation in the county. "It was the first time anyone wanted to save the old buildings; most people wanted to tear them down," she explained.

The articles became the basis for a series of guidebooks published in the late 1960s. "There was so much information that I couldn't fit in {the guidebooks}, I knew I had to do a larger book. I wasn't able to trace the families from generation to generation like I wanted to."

Although Holland was born in Baltimore, her association with the county goes back to the 1940s when she moved to her husband's 18th century family farm in Glenwood. "The first time I saw the farm, I knew I had to start to write about old places," she said.

She dived into research about the county's landmarks -- churches and estates such as Doughoregan, owned by Maryland statesman and signer of the Declaration of Independence Charles Carroll -- and the county's early families, with such names as Warfield, Dorsey and Ellicott that can still be found on mailboxes throughout the area.

Holland estimates that she has interviewed 150 people over the years and spent hundreds of hours going over family histories.

Like Cramm, most of Holland's time was spent knocking on doors. "I'd interview the inhabitants of a house and they'd introduce me to other people in the county, who'd give me the history of their houses and so on. People were very cooperative."

Although the subjects and presentations of the books differ, the authors feel a similar commitment to educating people about local history, and the school system is showing its commitment by stocking the books in its libraries.

If the authors had a single message for their readers, particularly young people, it would be the importance of knowing what came before. Said Cramm: "Seeing old photographs changes the whole way people look at the county. You look at the roads. You look at the houses. You start seeing things you've never seen before that have been there all along."