Behind the library circulation desk, Norma Nelson's hands have power. One hand gives a child his first book to read, while the other collects a tardy borrower's late fees. Both tasks are part of the job.
Nelson, 65, has seen a lot in her more than four decades with the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System.
The date stamp is gone, replaced by a computer scanner and self checkout. She no longer mails late notices. Instead an automated system calls patrons who keep books past their due dates. Gone, too, is the card catalogue. Today everything is digitized, computerized.
Nelson, who some patrons said looked like Diana Ross, remembers the old way of doing things on a typewriter and a 10-key calculator. She stood all day in stylish heels. These days, she wears more sensible shoes.
In September, Nelson will retire as one of the library system's longest-serving employees. She has worked for 45 years. Now, she steps away on her own volition. The timing is right, she said, noting upcoming budget cuts that could affect the county's library system.
"I feel like I'm blessed," said Nelson, who works at the Brandon Regional Library. "I'm happy I'm in this position now."
Nelson's career began as a volunteer at Tampa's Ybor City branch. She later became a paid employee when she moved to the main library branch, also in Ybor, on Seventh Avenue near the police department. From the beginning, Nelson says she always enjoyed talking with the patrons.
"The fact that they walked in and needed something and you could give them what they needed," said Nelson, who lives in Jackson Heights. "That gave me a sense of elation."
Her hourly wage of $1.07 back in 1966 wasn't a lot of money. She took joy in the satisfaction that came from providing exemplary service.
"I pride myself in the service I give the customers," Nelson said. "You always want the customer to have a positive feeling about the library when they leave, because you are the library."
The care she gave to library patrons also extended to her fellow employees. When the libraries were still funded through the city, Nelson served as a union representative. Ann Bush, her former supervisor, remembers her devotion to the workers.
"Norma was so diligent in taking care of people," Bush said. "She really watched out for our staff."
Service outside of the library's walls also has always been important to Nelson. She is a member of the local NAACP chapter, the Philos of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority and Mount Calvary Seventh-day Adventist Church in Tampa.
"My purpose is to serve others," Nelson said. "In serving others, we need to see what's best for the total concerned."
Brandon Regional Library principal librarian and branch manager Vickie Ricketts said Nelson was always a model leader.
"I was so glad she was here when I arrived," Ricketts said. "She has kept our circulation staff organized so everybody knows where they should be. It makes running a big library much easier when I have someone like her working for me."
The only regret Nelson has is that she didn't go beyond her associate's degree to learn more about computers. An aspiring businesswoman, she said she left the University of South Florida after a short time because there were so few black women on campus.
"If I had taken a course a year, I could have had a master's degree," Nelson said in a recent interview.
Other things in her life took precedence, such as her husband, who is now deceased, and their two children.
When computers began providing research conveniences through search engine companies such as Google, Nelson thought the library would fold up. She's glad she was wrong.
As she approaches retirement, Nelson looks forward to spending time with her grandchildren, gardening, traveling and evangelizing.
At her church, she has a pet project that will let her continue doing what she knows best. She wants to start a library and turn a new page.
Belinda Kramer can be reached at email@example.com.