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Retiring Pasco libraries director built the system from scratch

Linda Allen helped develop Pasco’s library system in the 1980s, when voters decided to tax themselves to build libraries.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Linda Allen helped develop Pasco’s library system in the 1980s, when voters decided to tax themselves to build libraries.

Linda Allen spent her early career in city libraries, institutions established long before she walked through their doors. Then in 1988, she arrived in a Florida county where voters had decided to spend $10 million to build a library system — almost from scratch. Pasco had just a few storefront county libraries, one by a pawn shop and none with an automated system that tracked what exactly was on the shelves. Allen saw a chance to be a pioneer. "It was the opportunity of a lifetime," she said.

She joined a small team that oversaw the evolution of an award-winning library system that now has seven branches and a 2-million-a-year circulation.

Allen, 63, is retiring as director of libraries next week after 23 years with the county.

She said she still marvels at the leap of faith that commissioners at the time took when they asked voters for so much money.

"They didn't have any idea this would work. They had no idea the people of Pasco would vote to tax themselves to build libraries," she said. "It's come an amazingly long way since then."

Allen grew up in Nashville, Tenn., the daughter of a sewer plant manager and a homemaker. She remembers the very moment when her mother took her to the city library.

"I remember walking in and going, 'Wow. Look at all these books!' " she said. "I thought, this is really where I want to be."

One of only a few children in her neighborhood, she found refuge in reading: Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton, Hardy Boys.

"If there was no book," she said, "I'd read the cereal box."

She worked at the school library when she was a teenager, got a master's degree in library sciences from George Peabody College in Nashville, and took a job at what was then Okaloosa-Walton Community College in Fort Walton Beach. She got married and moved to Louisville, Ky., where she worked for a decade as a technical services coordinator for the Louisville Free Public Library.

She then took a library job in West Palm Beach, where she met Gerald McKenna. He later became Pasco's first county libraries director and recruited Allen to come on as an assistant librarian.

Then came the hard part: daily four-hour "Green Beret training" for the workers, who had never touched a computer. Ordering books. Cataloging. And, of course, building — Allen remembers even helping with the roof work at the Holiday library.

The night before the first bond-financed facility, Hudson Library, opened in 1990, she and the other directors did one big group hug. It seemed like, she said, the whole plan might come together.

Pasco's libraries evolved, she said, to offer e-government services, something officials jumped on early as libraries developed beyond just a place to get books and into a place where people hunted for benefits and jobs.

As the county got younger, the libraries began offering more children's programs and, as those children started getting older, teen programs.

But the budget cuts of the last few years have left Allen, who became libraries director in 2002, pulling back some of what she helped put in place. Operating hours, concert series, event calendars, some of the teen programs: All have been slashed as her budget dropped 40 percent over the last three fiscal years.

Last year, she laid off two employees. Commissioners almost closed Centennial Park Library in Holiday, but reversed course amid an outcry from patrons.

But with another projected $8 million shortfall in property tax revenue next year, that library — which happens to be the one closest to Allen's home in Holiday — could end up on the chopping block again. So could a lot of other things.

"I don't know where they'll cut," Allen said with a sigh. "Everybody is always talking about cutting the fat. We're down to taking a vital organ."

Perhaps illustrating her point: County officials have named manager Nancy Fredericks as interim libraries director, but Assistant County Administrator Dan Johnson could not say when or even if they would name a permanent successor.

Allen, who made $98,715 per year, could have stayed on longer. But she said she thinks the hardest part is almost over. Budgets will stop getting cut, she said, and it'll be time for new leadership to start fresh.

"We've done a lot of interesting things," she said, "but you know, somebody else will, too."

Allen, who is divorced, lives with her Shih Tzu named Tucker. She said she'll volunteer, make jewelry, garden and, of course, read. (She likes everybody from Pat Conroy to Sue Grafton to Lee Child.)

And her departure won't be this librarian's last chapter in county business. If commissioners talk about closing Centennial Library this summer, she said she'll be there to protest.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Retiring Pasco libraries director built the system from scratch 01/28/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 28, 2011 9:01pm]
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