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Tiny library's task: Offer raw material for hope

sandra thompson
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© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 28, 2001

On a gloomy Tuesday afternoon, Tampa's oldest library is open for business. "West Tampa Free Public Library" are the words carved into the 1913 neo-classical building, originally funded by the Andrew Carnegie Foundation. It is one of almost 1,700 free libraries Carnegie built in this country in a time when book collections were private and not accessible to the people who needed them most.

A teenage boy is returning a couple of educational videos to the librarian, Maureen Baez, a small, redheaded woman with wire-rimmed glasses. She is the chief librarian at this tiny but significant 1,200-square-foot branch. "I'm the only librarian," she clarifies.

And today one of her assistants is out, so she's hustling. This morning she has done a program for 16 children, and she'll do another this afternoon.

In a room in back, there are six kids on four computers playing games under posters of Booker T. Washington and Maya Angelou.


"Girl, you done messed up!"

One of the boys, in an oversized red T-shirt, is bobbing around the kids at the screens. He's a charmer and a talker, but he also seems to know the ins and outs of the computer games.

A middle-aged guy comes in to use a computer, so one of the kids is bumped off. There are only four computers, with a sign-up list and 30-minute screen time. "Contemporary Development Issues in Ethiopia" comes up on the man's screen.

In 1,200 square feet, there's not much room for books. Now children are coming in with summer reading lists, and the library has to order the books from other branches. This year, every school seems to have assigned The Hobbit. When school is in session and kids come in to do homework, or at tax time when the neighborhood comes in for free help through the vagaries of the IRS, space is in a real crunch.

Space-wise, there's good news. The historic building will be renovated and a 5,000-square-foot building built behind and connected to the present library. The new building will be the actual library; the old building will be used for meeting rooms, a place for community groups to gather.

This is a good thing in so many ways. The neighborhood needs this library. Look around and you'll see a historic Tampa neighborhood that has been neglected, many of its bungalows shut tight, yards full of junk. People here are poor.

One of the elementary schools the library serves is Dunbar. Coincidentally, a few weeks ago I was talking with a teacher there, and she told me an anecdote that stuck. In writing assignments, students are often given a "prompt," an introduction into a narrative. She said she had given a prompt something like this: You are in long corridor, and at the end a door is ajar. What is behind that door? The children were not able to write about it. "There's nothing behind that door!" they said.

This hit me as unbearably sad. If you cannot imagine things, you cannot imagine a life that is different from the one you have. If you cannot imagine, you cannot hope. These children need a library, and much more.

All the kids have been bumped off the computers by adults, so they now are just sort of hanging out in the main room.

"I sure could use some help in the 3 o'clock program," Baez says.

They want to know what kind of games they're going to play.

No games, this time. "I need some people who can read!" she says.

They enthusiastically volunteer. But it's only 1:30, so they go outside to play.

A girl about 11 or 12 checks out two Goosebumps books.

Just another summer day at the little library that could.

- Sandra Thompson is a writer who lives in Tampa. She can be reached at City Life appears on Saturday.

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