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County's oldest library a West Tampa treasure

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 02:13 PM

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WEST TAMPA -

The West Tampa Free Public Library was a gift from one immigrant - Scotsman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie - to many more immigrants who sought the American Dream.

On New Year's Day 1914 a grand celebration marked the opening of the first library in Hillsborough County. It was one of 10 Carnegie libraries built in Florida from the early 1900s to about 1917.

According to an account in the Tampa Morning Tribune, the building was filled with potted plants and flowers and the flags of the United States, Cuba, Spain and Italy. Three languages were spoken - English, Spanish and Italian - in acknowledgement of Tampa's immigrant population, many of whom worked in the cigar factories of Ybor City and West Tampa.

As the 100th anniversary of the library approaches, a Library History Roadshow is on a three-year journey to gather oral histories, memories, artifacts and photographs from past and current users. The first day-long event, sponsored by the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System, was held on a recent Saturday at the West Tampa library (now known as the West Tampa Branch Library) at Howard Avenue and Union Street.

The next road show, also at the West Tampa library, will be from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. June 4. Staff and volunteers will scan photos and printed materials and record, as video or audio, memories and anecdotes about this or other libraries. A Burgert Brothers photographic display of West Tampa also can be viewed. The program is free to the public.

**

The West Tampa library, with its Spanish-language reading section, was a success. Often the readers, or lectors, who entertained and enlightened the cigar factory's workers found their books at the West Tampa library.

"There was a real desire for books and reading materials," said Margaret Rials, coordinator for the Friends of the Library of Tampa-Hillsborough County.

Again in the late 1950s and 1960s, the West Tampa library was a special place for a new influx of Cuban immigrants who fled Fidel Castro's communist regime.

"I had many people who came to this library who spoke no English or had to get someone, often their children or grandchildren, to help," said retired librarian Bernadette Storck, 75. "They were so grateful to find it here."

Carnegie began donating money to build libraries in the early 1900s. He had amassed a fortune as a steel magnate and builder of bridges, locomotives and railways.

His family migrated from Scotland when Carnegie was 13 years old. Carnegie's first job was in a Pennsylvania cotton factory.

In an 1889 essay, "The Gospel of Wealth", Carnegie preached that the wealthy were morally obligated to use their money to benefit the "common man."

In 1913 he offered to donate $17,500 for construction of a library building in the city of West Tampa. Residents voted in a special election to accept the donation and a yearly tax to pay for the library's operating costs. The vote was 352 to 1.

The identity of the lone dissenter isn't available. But critics of Carnegie said the industrialist was more interested in vanity monuments than in doing good works.

A tract of land off Howard Avenue was bought for $6,000 from Macfarlane Investment Co. and construction began on what today is the oldest of Hillsborough's 25 operating libraries.

The city also operated a Carnegie library on Seventh Avenue that opened in 1917. In 1968 it was converted to a city building. Today it is the city's code enforcement office.

Carnegie had a reputation for being exacting in how he wanted his libraries designed.

Patrons, he thought, should walk up grand stairways to enter the library as if climbing steps toward higher learning. Many of the more than 1,600 libraries built with Carnegie's donations were sturdy, imposing structures. The West Tampa library is in a Neo-classical revival style and is part of the West Tampa national historical district.

Carnegie even insisted on something rare in Florida: a basement.

A Tampa city clerk, James Biggars, tried to explain basements were not successful in Florida, said Rials.

Carnegie got his way.

But Storck, who worked at the West Tampa library in the early 1960s, said, "Every time it rained the basement flooded. The mosquitoes just chewed me up."

There were other issues. "The building was like a refrigerator on cold days," Storck said. Electricity was turned on and off at a wall panel. "That was an adventure," she said. "I got shocked one day turning the lights on and off."

**

Through the years library patrons reflected the changing demographics of West Tampa, said Hillsborough County Library Director Joe Stines. Early Latin immigrants found rentals along Union Street but some later moved to Town 'N Country and other areas.

Later more blacks moved into surrounding neighborhoods and today, Stines said, "It's very much diverse."

The Ada T. Payne Friends of Urban Libraries supports three libraries: West Tampa, College Hill and Robert W. Saunders, Sr.

Mary James is the granddaughter of Payne, who was the first black librarian. She remembers going with Payne to the white-only libraries to pick up books to loan out at the Harlem Academy Library. Payne and James had to enter those libraries through back doors.

James gave an audio interview talking about her grandmother and the work of the friends' group in support of the urban libraries summer reading programs and bookstores. "It's all about the community," she said. "My life has been reading, reading and reading."

In 2004 the library completed a major renovation and expansion. The library's main floor became a second floor meeting room. An extension of 5,000 square feet was added to the back of the building and what was once the basement level became the library's main reading room. A lobby is decorated with paintings by Ferdie Pacheco and stained-glass windows were installed in the reading room.

A cork tile floor was pulled up from the old reading room, revealing a wooden floor peppered with tiny nail holes which remain visible.

Marcus Colbert, 23, said he frequents the West Tampa library.

"It's quiet," he said. "People who come in, they like to learn. It's an environment that I love. I wish all environments would be structured this way."

ksteele@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7652

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