People pour into the New Port Richey Library to borrow books, movies and exercise equipment, to learn Spanish, French and musical instruments, to see small concerts, plays and films, to use the computers for job searches, online courses and the application of benefits.
The bustling red brick library on Main Street boasted 1,433 program gatherings last year, making it one of the busiest libraries in the state. But it all grew out of one man's mission to establish a respectable reading collection for a west Pasco pioneer town.
On Saturday, the New Port Richey Library will officially celebrate its 90th anniversary, kicking off a week of literary festivities (see listing on Page 6). The decades have brought countless changes to the library — audio books, e-books, computer classes and Wii games — but the goal remains the same.
"Libraries were founded as the people's university," library director Susan Dillinger said.
Elroy Avery — a textbook author, high school principal, Ohio state senator and Civil War veteran from the 11th Michigan Cavalry — arrived in New Port Richey in the summer of 1919, bringing hundreds of books to launch a library.
That December, he and other community leaders formed the Avery Library and Historical Society. On April 10, 1920, the library opened its doors in the Snell Building with about 2,000 volumes.
The first book cataloged was Avery's personal copy of a Schofield Bible.
Library cards cost $1 a year. But the Avery Public Library still relied heavily on fundraisers to pay the rent and expand the collection. A group of women called the Library Associates donated their time shelving books, cataloging the collection and dusting the shelves. They organized a carnival in March 1922 to raise money for the library.
The first Chasco Fiesta netted $364.31 for the treasury.
When New Port Richey became an incorporated town in 1924, Avery became the first mayor. The following year, the library board handed over its collection to the city. Thanks to steady donations and a bounty of books donated by the Cleveland Public Library, the collection grew to 4,854 volumes.
"The Tampa Library has one book for every three inhabitants; our library has four books for every one of our population," Avery wrote in a brochure seeking donations to maintain and grow the library.
Louis Holway, a Vermont minister who had been appointed to a New Port Richey church, became library director in 1925. He launched a vigorous campaign for a new library building. But once the Great Depression struck, his challenge was simply keeping the doors open.
In 1931, the failure of First State Bank left the city unable to pay for running the library. Avery and Holway pleaded for private donations, and enough money trickled in from church groups and local lodges to keep the library open every Tuesday and Friday.
Holway dutifully maintained the collection, even when there was no money to pay his salary.
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The library moved five times over the decades before landing in 1991 at its current location adjacent to City Hall. The Avery name was dropped in the 1960s — not without controversy — and so was the $1 charge for library cards.
"The idea of a public library is to be open to all, whether you can afford it or not," Dillinger said.
The collection has ballooned to 76,396 books, 4,088 videos, 2,589 audio books and 523 e-books.
The library has 36,671 card-holders and logged 409,547 library visits last year. The library's Web site and online resources saw 2.25 million hits.
And the use of the library has grown in ways Avery and Holway never could have imagined.
People can check out wrist weights, ab rollers and exercise kits. They can check out sets of books and DVDs featuring high school and college-level courses. If they get a speeding ticket, they can come in and take their traffic class online. If they're interested in learning yoga or line-dancing, they can take library-sponsored classes at Peace Hall.
It all comes back to the idea that individual enrichment benefits the community, Dillinger said.
"We keep trying to give people things that they can really use to improve their well-being," Dillinger said. "The more education that you get, the more likely it is you can obtain a better job — and that also contributes to the redevelopment in the community. If you have a better job, you are able to spend more money in the community, and you're better able to support local businesses.
"We try to give everybody something."
Historical information from West Pasco's Heritage was used in this report. Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.