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Few children walk by the aquarium in the lobby of the Lexington Park library without stopping to admire the bright fish and coral.

Beyond the aesthetic beauty, though, the marine system functions as part of an experiment of sorts that has gone on for a decade in conjuction with the biology department at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Jerome Burgess stopped by the library on a recent Friday to deliver two new residents to the tank a foxface fish and an anemone, valued at about $100 each.

Burgess, who runs an aquarium business called Tanks to You, helps keep the tank healthy. He said the fish and other animals that live in the tank just about always garner attention from library visitors, especially younger visitors.

“I don’t think a kid can walk by it without stopping to look at it,” Mary Anne Bowman, library branch manager, said.

Some parents also use the aquarium as a way to lure their children out of the library when it’s time to go, she said. Promising one last look at the fish can be a strong incentive to leave the comfort of the kid’s room.

Burgess said that surveys filled out by library patrons often cite the aquarium.

“This is always high on everybody’s list of must-haves,” he said.

The aquarium also hosts live corals, sea animals that attach themselves to the ground underwater. “It’s often said corals are animals that wish they were plants,” Burgess said.

They are also key components of some environmental and cancer research, he said. Students at St. Mary’s College of Maryland are studying the way corals use chemical signals to communicate when there is a disturbance.

St. Mary’s College professor Walter Hatch said Burgess began visiting the college’s biology department to exchange ideas about the aquarium systems. The college maintains two systems that are joined and consist of some 2,000 gallons of marine water supporting several thousand animals, Hatch said.

When Burgess began getting involved with the library he installed a small 10-gallon tank. When the library moved to its current location 10 years ago it had been located where the Three Notch Theatre now resides Burgess offered to re-establish a tank.

Together with Hatch, they gathered old equipment no longer in use at the college, including a 55-gallon tank and stand.

“We put it all together and got it up and running,” Hatch said.

Little by little they added corals and other invertebrates, and eventually fish, including a clownfish.

“Watching all those children with their noses pressed against the glass shouting ‘Nemo!’ was pretty rewarding,” Hatch said.

He said the aquarium can be a learning tool to help the public understand the importance of coral and other marine life, beyond just the aesthetic allure.

“It’s been a very good relationship,” Burgess said.

To help with the upkeep of the tank, the library currently has a donation program focused on the clownfish Nemo, of Disney movie fame, that allows children to write their name on small fish pictures and post them next to the tank. There is also a mailbox next to the aquarium for children to send letters to Nemo.

The Friends of the Library group pays for the distilled water used to replace what evaporates, and the Southern Maryland Marine Aquarium Society periodically contributes expertise, upkeep, equipment and livestock, Burgess said.

He and the aquarium society have mostly taken over care of the library tank, with occasional logistic support from Hatch and the college.

Not long after the 55-gallon tank from the college was installed, Burgess upgraded to a 75-gallon model, he said. About two years ago he again upgraded, this time to the 90-gallon tank that currently rests in the library’s lobby.

“That system looks really very nice,” Hatch said.

“The main thing is making sure everybody is compatible,” and gets along inside the tank, Burgess said. “It’s definitely a community effort.”

jyeatman@somdnews.com