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Library Guy shows how one man can make a difference in Tallahassee

Paul Clark, 39, of Tallahassee, a systems librarian for the Wilderness Coast Public Libraries, thanks lawmakers outside the Florida Senate on Tuesday for supporting library funding.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Paul Clark, 39, of Tallahassee, a systems librarian for the Wilderness Coast Public Libraries, thanks lawmakers outside the Florida Senate on Tuesday for supporting library funding.

He wasn't sure he could make a difference. Just one guy, holding a sign, showing up at the state Capitol. Trying to save the libraries.

Maybe legislators wouldn't listen. Maybe no one would care.

How much could one man matter?

But Paul Clark had to do something. He couldn't just sit there and let those elected officials drain funding from Florida's public libraries.

Where would all those people who didn't have computers go? How would they file for benefits or apply for jobs? What would he do? Without state money, he would lose his $45,000 position as the systems librarian for three rural counties near Tallahassee.

"I have to at least try," he told his wife, Karin.

Clark, 39, is tall and soft-spoken. Stubborn, says his wife. Passionate, he corrects her.

In college, he majored in psychology but couldn't find a job in his field. He worked at Wendy's, then Chick-fil-A. On days off, he hung out at the library, reading magazines, paging through books, researching everything from alligator wrestling to ancient Rome.

"You should be a librarian," a friend told him. Clark laughed. But the more he thought about it, the more it made sense.

After earning a master's in library science from Florida State, he was hired to work on computers for the Wilderness Coast Public Libraries. That was 14 years ago, the same summer he got married. He and his wife have three sons, ages 9, 10 and 12.

She stays home with the boys, and volunteers in their school library. He works late most nights, writing grants, planning computer training, trying to update technology for the rural area's 50,000 residents.

• • •

Until last year, until he heard the Legislature was about to slash millions from Florida's libraries, Clark had never lobbied for anything.

But that Saturday in March, when he heard the news on the radio, he told wife he was heading downtown. He left before 7 a.m., stopped at Target Copy and made a sign: Save our libraries.

He held his poster outside the Capitol, then moved inside to roam the halls, knock on doors, hand out literature, explain to anyone who would listen how important libraries are, especially in rural areas. He explained how libraries were the great leveling force of a democracy — the only institution that provided equal access and power through knowledge to anyone and everyone, all for free.

Libraries need tax dollars to survive, he told senators' aides. Could he come back sometime when the senator was available and talk? The next day, he made another sign: Save State Aid to Libraries. He laminated both signs, so they wouldn't flop.

• • •

He managed to keep his job. But this spring, the prospects seemed even bleaker. Legislators were talking about eliminating all state money from Florida's libraries — $21 million.

Clark told his boss he would need some vacation days. He asked other librarians to come with him to the Capitol. A few came, a few times, for a few hours.

Over the past six weeks, Clark spent 17 days in Tallahassee, holding up two, sometimes three signs at once, logging 12-hour shifts.

Clark would just stand quietly, mostly, hoping for someone to ask him — anything. He talked to 40 senators, almost as many representatives. Once, he waited two hours to have five seconds of face time with Sen. JD Alexander.

"That gentleman has been a fixture around here. I came to expect to see him," said Alexander, R-Lake Wales. "He's just a librarian who cares, who's been standing there, quietly reminding us how important this issue is. …

"When you see an individual citizen, taking his own time to be heard, that makes an impression,'' he said.

Monday night, just before midnight, state lawmakers reached a budget deal. They added $7 million to library funding, bringing the total to $21 million — enough to qualify for $8 million more in matching federal money.

Sen. Alexander searched the room. Where was that library guy?

Clark was home, sleeping. He was exhausted. He got the news Tuesday morning, a message on his Blackberry. He drove to Target Copy and made another sign.

• • •

Clark was on the phone with a reporter Tuesday afternoon. "Excuse me a minute," he said.

He was standing in the fourth floor hall of the Senate building, holding his new sign. "Hello, senator!" he called, brandishing the placard above his head. "I just came to let you know I appreciate everything you all did."

This sign was bigger than the last one. In the center, a stick figure was reading a book. Clark signed his message, "The Library Guy."

It had only two other words: Thank you!

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet and Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report.

Library Guy shows how one man can make a difference in Tallahassee 04/27/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 27, 2010 10:54pm]
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