When Mary Gaines was a little girl, her mother told her she was no better than the next person and the next person was no better than her.
The director for St. Petersburg's library system, who retires Thursday after 25 years of service, took the message to heart. Though her work took place in the administrative offices at the Mirror Lake branch, she was never above helping patrons find research materials, putting away misplaced books or cleaning the bathrooms.
"I wouldn't ask my staff to do anything I wouldn't do myself," Gaines said. "Because of that, I've had staff also willing to give more."
Under Gaines' direction, the library system took on two new independent branches in 2002, the South branch, then located at Boyd Hill Nature Center, and the James Weldon Johnson branch. Both had shared space with other facilities until Gaines applied for state and local grants for new buildings. She amassed $830,000 in grants that year, and both libraries later opened standalone facilities.
In the early '90s, the Mirror Lake library got a new wing and drive-up window where patrons could call to reserve a book for drive-through pickup — anything to make the library more welcoming and convenient, Gaines said.
Her day-to-day responsibilities included coordinating schedules for all the libraries, tracking the budget and approving acquisitions such as new books and CDs. She also routinely met with other librarians in the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative to standardize policies and procedures so that patrons could use their library cards to check out materials throughout the county.
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Before coming to the St. Petersburg library system, Gaines worked as a librarian for Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee for 17 years. She started volunteering there in the mid '60s as a library sciences undergraduate, and was later hired.
Much has changed in her 42 years as a librarian, namely the rise of computers and the Internet. She acknowledges that the Kindle and Sony reader have made books more convenient, but insists there will always be a place for old-fashioned ink and paper.
"There's something about a book that you can hold in your hands that you came to the library and got," Gaines said. "A real book lover can never accept a substitute."
Though she loves fiction, she tries to balance her James Patterson and Nora Roberts novels with Scripture, which she has been reading every night since she was young.
Born and raised in Tallahassee, Gaines grew up in a time of segregation and racial prejudice. Her mother single-handedly raised her and two siblings, a sister and a brother, after Gaines' father died when she was 6. Gaines said she inherited her mother's gutsy spirit and took literally her message of equality.
"I had an issue with that as a kid," Gaines said. "When I saw a water fountain labeled 'colored,' I'm thinking, 'The water's the same.'
"My mother would always tell me, 'You don't look up to anyone and you don't look down to anyone.' We're all the same."
She said she lived her life according to her mother's wisdom, and the library staff appreciated it.
"She had an open-door policy. You were never afraid to approach her," said library support services coordinator Linda Branson, who worked with Gaines for 17 years. "She'd always acknowledge staff birthdays and take us out to lunch or have a gift for us."
For Gaines' retirement, the librarians held a dinner party Friday at the Main Library. They also held a program called, "There's Something About Mary," where everyone stood up to tell a story or experience that represented their friendship with Gaines.
"It was a way to go out," Gaines said. "I was touched by everyone's comments."
For her retirement she plans to go on an Alaskan cruise with her sister Evelyn Daniels. She would also like to volunteer at All Children's Hospital to show her gratitude for treating her twin granddaughters, who were born prematurely.
Tania Karas can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or firstname.lastname@example.org.