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Helping patrons explore history in Catonsville


Lisa Vicari, a petite woman who talks excitedly, reaches into the desk drawer in the Baltimore County Public Library's Catonsville Room, then carefully slips on her white gloves before handling the 1915 Atlas of Baltimore County.

Gently turning its aged pages, Vicari points out houses that people frequently ask about, explaining that curious homeowners eagerly look up their houses on these maps. Scattered across the maps are yellow squares, pink rectangles, and house names like Summit and Dunmore.

The Catonsville Room, in the basement of the Catonsville Library on Frederick Road, has blossomed into a community resource for local residents and others who come in with questions or to explore the history of their community.

"This is the place people come to if they have a question about their homes, their genealogy, or anything else. People even come from out of state, and they try to look up their roots here," says Marlene Kuhl, library manager.

The room is one of three containing historical collections in the county. The other two are the Reisterstown Room in the Reisterstown Library and the Towson Room in the Towson Library.

The Catonsville Room was started in 1963 by Thomas G. Pullen Jr., then-state superintendent of schools, and is funded by the Friends of the Catonsville Library.

It is "a very nice room that has adapted well to the community use," said library patron B.H. Barker.

Vicari, a volunteer at the Catonsville Room since 1977, said visitors often consult Baltimore-area directories to trace their genealogy.

And, she added, "Kids really like reading the different occupations, such as confectioner, and asking what they are."

A former teacher, Vicari relishes the opportunity to help children learn, explaining that a confectioner owned a sweet shop or convenience store.

Inside the cluttered office of the Catonsville Room are transcribed oral histories, old directories and boxes containing programs from the old Alpha Theater on Frederick Road, which closed in 1961.

One of the more famous oral histories, given by former newspaper editor Jean Walsh, describes the Catonsville Nine and their fight against United States involvement in the Vietnam War. The group included among its members peace activists Daniel and Philip Berrigan.

Patrons can also gain a glimpse into the lives of other residents, such as Oscar Coblanz, who owned the Alpha Theater, and Elhana Washington, an African-American businessman who ran the Washington Grocery Store at Winters Lane and Edmondson Avenue.

Catonsville Room volunteers have also shared their fondest memories. Ralph Heidelbach, whose family owned a gourmet grocery store and bakery, visited the Catonsville Room often and told stories for hours.

Vicari and 11 volunteers staff the Catonsville Room, which is open from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays and from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. the first Wednesday of the month.

"We have people who come regularly and always ask when the Catonsville Room is open," Kuhl said, "and much of it is due to Lisa Vicari and her cadre of hard workers."

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