Mary Lou Harkness built USF's library from nothing to the digital age

Mary Lou Harkness was USF's head librarian from 1967 to 1987, the first woman to hold the job.
Mary Lou Harkness was USF's head librarian from 1967 to 1987, the first woman to hold the job.
Published May 21 2014
Updated May 21 2014

TAMPA — Friends and family describe Mary Lou Harkness as more reserved than gregarious. She knew where she stood and why, and didn't need to beat you over the head about it.

At the same time, she was a crusader on social issues, whether civil rights in the 1960s or the treatment of women in the 1990s by the Taliban.

But most of her impact was felt behind the scenes, building up the library of the University of South Florida from 1958 to 1991. Mrs. Harkness, the fourth person hired by a fledgling university and its library director for 20 years, died May 13 after a stroke. She was 88.

Mrs. Harkness was named head librarian in 1967, the first woman to hold the post. She soon learned to master the job's daunting political challenges.

"Every field wants all of the books they think they should have," said Marjorie Broward, 89, a retried librarian and friend of Mrs. Harkness' since graduate school. "So within the library system, there is always some tension for how you provide for all of the different academic fields at the same time."

Accordingly, Mrs. Harkness made regular trips to Tallahassee, where she met with legislators to secure revenue.

Mrs. Harkness was born Mary Lou Barker in Denby, S.D., in 1925. She spent part of her childhood on a South Dakota Indian reservation for the Oglala Sioux Tribe, where her father had a general store.

After graduating from Nebraska Weslyan University, she earned a master's in library science from the University of Michigan.

She was hired in 1958 by John S. Allen, USF's first president. She met Don Harkness, an American studies professor, two years later while playing bridge. He liked her martinis (Beefeater's, straight up, with a twist). They married — her first marriage, his second.

"As a couple they cut a wide swath through USF," said Kristine Somerville, Mrs. Harkness' stepdaughter. "They were there five nights a week — either at a lecture, a social event fundraiser or a basketball game."

Mrs. Harkness would influence both of her stepdaughters, Kristine, who was then a teenager, and Judy, who was older.

"All I cared about was the latest hairstyle or boyfriend," Somerville said. "Watching her spend time and treasure on things that mattered and impacted the world was the best education you could give a growing-up person."

Over time, the child-sized library she had helped start grew to adulthood. By 1987, USF owned more than 800,000 volumes, plus substantial microfilm and government documents. The library was also on its way to replacing card catalogs with computers.

Mrs. Harkness stepped down as head librarian in 1987, returning after a break to a position as university librarian. She retired in 1991, the same year her husband died. She traveled with girlfriends to faraway places like Namibia and Iceland.

She also worked on the campaigns of former state Sen. Betty Castor (who was also USF's first female president), and former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. She remained active in the Athena Society, the Centre and the USF Women's Club. If Mrs. Harkness' mind slowed a bit in recent years, her wit did not. From time to time, family members had to remind her where she was living.

"She didn't remember what had happened to Dad, and I told her he had died," said Judy Groleau, her other stepdaughter. "She said, 'Well, that was pretty rude!' "

Her stepdaughters knew she was fading the last couple of weeks.

"I said goodbye," said Somerville. "I told her, 'Dad will be waiting for you with a martini, to take you to heaven.' "

Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.