The West Tampa Free Public Library opened New Year's Day 1914. It was Hillsborough County's first, and until 1917, only free public library.
That's why a countywide centennial celebration will span three years, explains Margaret Rials, principal librarian at John F. Germany Library. The festivities will begin Jan. 1, 2014, and continue into 2017.
But first officials want to collect memorabilia from library users to make the centennial more comprehensive. They've started doing so with a Library History Roadshow launched at the historic West Tampa Library on Howard Avenue in April.
A return visit June 4 drew about 60 patrons, armed with photographs and news clippings to be archived. Library and Tampa Bay History Center staff served Cuban sandwiches, displayed vintage photographs and recorded visitors' memorable experiences on video and audio tape.
"We'll eventually hit all 25 current branches,'' said Rials, although future stops on the road show have not been announced.
But it was guest speaker E.J. Salcines' vivid recollections that held the crowd's attention, including several descendents of the first immigrants to frequent the library.
"I used to shine shoes across the street, then come in and learn anatomy from National Geographic magazines,'' said Salcines, with a wide grin. The retired judge described the sounds and smells streaming through the open library windows: bread from Alessi Bakery, coffee from the 4th of July Cafe, empanadas from street vendors.
West Tampa was an independent city at the time, founded by Hugo Campbell Macfarlane, "the Scottish godfather,'' said Salcines. He tapped a grant from industrialist Andrew Carnegie to build the library for $17,500, one of 11 libraries he paid for in Florida.
Salcines took the audience back to the era when cigar factory lectors read to the workers every day — newspapers in the mornings and novellas in the afternoon. That introduction to books such as Les Miserables and the Count of Monte Cristo sent them to the library hungry for more.
In his depiction of the Jan. 1, 1914, inauguration, "the same day Tony Jannus made the first solo flight from St. Petersburg to Tampa," Salcines quoted newspaper reports of 500 people filling the library, stairwells and street. Guest speakers and musicians welcomed the crowd in English, Italian and Spanish beneath flags representing the United States, Spain, Italy and Cuba.
Clutching the front page of the Oct. 4, 1901, Tampa Morning Tribune, Ybor City native S.D. Ficarrotta recounted his debt to the West Tampa librarians.
"Thank God this library was here,'' said the retired educator. "They not only exposed you to books, but their interest in you raised your self-esteem.
"Although I was intimidated by this amazing structure,'' Ficarrotta continued, "ascending the steps, I thought I was ascending to heaven. A library card was a passport to education."
Ficarrotta, now living in Palm Harbor, won tickets to the history center for bringing in the oldest artifact.
Martha Bacon brought a more current perspective, having worked at the West Tampa branch from 1960 to 2001. "This was like a family," said the Tampa Heights resident. "We raised three generations of neighborhood children." Bacon collected clothes and toys for the kids at Christmas, celebrated birthdays and "had permission to whip them if had to."
Which she didn't.
"They were very well-behaved, not like kids now. Back then, if they used a word I thought was inappropriate, I put them out," Bacon said.
Amy Scherzer can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3332.