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Sunday, May 27, 2018
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A century later, county libraries still evolving

TAMPA — After a year of construction, the new Seminole Heights Branch Library has reopened.

The $3.8 million center — with 22,000 square feet of book shelves, community space and high-tech computer labs — is the latest among a handful of local libraries that have undergone major expansions in the past two years.

Renovations to the Bloomingdale Regional and Jimmy B. Keel regional libraries were recently completed, and a groundbreaking ceremony for a new, $7.8 million Robert W. Saunders Sr. Public Library was held Friday.

“The fact that we need bigger libraries and that we need expanded services shows that we’re still as relevant today as 100 years ago,” said Margaret Rials, a chief librarian with the Hillsborough County Public Library Cooperative.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the county library system, and administrators plan to mark the occasion with luncheons, traveling art displays, book discussions and children’s activities throughout 2014.

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The centennial celebrations kicked off Jan. 1 with a party for the West Tampa Branch Library, the county’s first public library, Rials said. The West Tampa library, which opened Jan. 1, 1914, was one of about 2,500 public libraries worldwide funded with grants from steel magnate Andrew Carnegie in the early 20th century. Carnegie provided Hillsborough County with $17,500 for a free public library on the condition that the county provide a location and the citizens of West Tampa, then a separate city, vote to pay the library’s operating costs, Rials said.

“We would never have gotten public libraries here if it weren’t for citizens wanting it,” she said.

A century ago, the concept of a free library open to all, regardless of income or status, was relatively new, Rials said. Carnegie’s goal was to make learning and knowledge available to everyone.

“It’s changed, but we’re still fulfilling that mission,” Rials said.

Today, Hillsborough County is home to 28 libraries that serve about 1 million customers. Visitors can check out printed materials, audiobooks or e-books, as well as use the library computers, meeting rooms and event space.

Modern libraries are much different from the library Melodee Suarez visited as a child in small-town Rhode Island.

Libraries now are used for everything from job interviews and résumé preparation to tutoring and tax help, said Suarez, president of Friends of the Library, the nonprofit group that raises money to help support county libraries.

“Our computers are always full,” Suarez said. “People wait to get on the computer and they’ve waited as much as an hour because they don’t have computers at home. I don’t think any of our libraries suffer from a lack of patrons.”

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Seminole Heights resident Fernando Rios takes advantage of the computer lab when he visits libraries.

“People will always use them, in my opinion,” he said.

Suarez said her goal for the centennial year is to recruit 100 more dues-paying members to the Friends of the Library group so it can continue to fund and expand the system’s programs. The organization raised several thousand dollars to help fund the luncheons, parties and drawings that are part of the centennial celebrations, she said.

“There’s a lot of history tied into it,” Suarez said. “Our theme is the past and the future. Look how far we’ve come, but look how far we’re going to go.”

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