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Library continues to nourish its patrons

When my family and I moved to Pinellas County in 1954, we loved the beach, the weather, the palm trees, the excitement of a growing area, but we missed the cultural stimulation that we were leaving behind.

Moving from Nashville, known more then for being the "Athens of the South" than "Music City," we were used to having access to the Carnegie Library, three university libraries, foreign movies at community centers and all kinds of concerts. In Safety Harbor, where we lived for the first year and a half, the library was the size of an average living room. After our move to Clearwater, the downtown branch of the Clearwater Library looked like heaven to a book-starved family.

One of the first things I did was to take out my library card, one for my husband and one for all three children, even the 8-month-old baby. With a limit of four books checked out at one time, by having an extra card for the only non-reader we were able to squeeze another book or two per visit.

We were struggling financially, and the library kept us all sane for several years. The children considered it the highlight of their week to pay a visit to the library and choose their new books.

Except for a small branch on the beach, the main library was the only game in town. At the same location on Osceola Avenue, it was a most curious building _ three stories with current books, reference shelves and reading room on the middle floor and a good-sized room at the south end closed off by glass doors for the children's books, the third floor for stacks holding the general collection, and the first floor-basement for storage and work rooms.

To enter from Osceola, patrons had to climb rather steep curving steps and go in on the middle floor. No concern about access for the handicapped in those days. They were the only steps in flat, one-story Florida that my youngest had ever navigated and he was enchanted. Even when he stumbled and knocked out one of his baby teeth trying to haul himself up a concrete step, he still looked forward to climbing his personal Mount Everest. He lives now in a two-story house and has an active library card and all his permanent teeth.

To look for books from the general collection, the reader had to go back into the stacks and climb the little, narrow, wrought-iron spiral steps from one level to the other and walk around on the metal support-floors, searching for the call number just copied on a piece of scratch paper.

The card catalog presented its own special challenge, being out of date in a serious way. Some of the cards had been there for so long that they were on the point of disintegrating, with information so smudged that it was almost impossible to read. Most people, once they learned the layout of the library, just went on their own fishing expeditions.

I had seen somewhere a reference to an obscure book by Thomas Jefferson titled Jesus of Nazareth, which had as its thesis the idea that, though Jesus was indeed a great teacher of moral truths, he was not divine, the son of God. The card was still in the catalog, but the book was nowhere to be found, nor any record of it. In that post-McCarthy era, I was deeply suspicious that someone had simply removed, hidden, destroyed? _ maybe all of the above. But none of my investigation was ever able to prove anything, other than that the book had simply disappeared, as do many books in any public library.

When my youngest child started school, I got a job as an English teacher at Clearwater High School. My students were never able to use as an excuse for turning in their papers late that they couldn't find what they needed in the school library. I had told them many times that all they had to do was go to the city library and they could find whatever they were looking for. Many of them learned to love the unexpected bonus of borrowing the family car and going out on a school night on a quasi-legitimate academic quest to drive the evening librarians crazy.

As a family, we continued to use the library at least once a week through all the various ages and stages of the three children. When my daughter was in her horse-loving stage and taking ballet lessons, the books she chose were all concentrated in those two areas. Both boys loved books about sports _ baseball, football, golf, auto racing _ and the older boy was crazy about ancient history, with Alexander the Great being a particular hero of his.

In the late '60s we spent a year in Italy, living in Florence where my husband had a grant to study. I went to the Biblioteca Nazionale as soon as we got settled and found a lot more confusion than just another language. I had thought they might have an English-language section, but the man on the desk referred me to the British Library, "just across the Arno and down a bit past the Ponte Vecchio." Because he spoke a little English, I asked him some questions about the Italian library system.

I think I understood him when he said that they had no version of our card catalog, that the books were shelved most often on the basis of size, color of binding and sometimes year of publication. When I wondered how anyone could find a certain book, he was very patient and explained that one would know what size and color the book was, just as in other systems, and one would know the author and the title. I was not convinced, but that may have been English-language chauvinism at work. The whole year was wonderful, and I missed only three things from home: a Sunday paper, water fountains in public places and "my" library.

The children were all very much influenced by our relationship with the library. Grown-up now, they all read, they are interested in a variety of subjects and know how to "go look it up" when they need to. They all have active library cards, and one of them, my daughter, is happily ensconced at the Library of Congress as a computer systems analyst. She got her master's degree in library science at the University of Chicago, started at the Library of Congress as an intern, and now has been there almost seven years.

Last summer, we had a visitor from Italy, the daughter of good friends of ours in Florence. She was in America taking a summer course at the University of California in Berkeley and came to stay a week with us. Her devoted French boyfriend, Pierre, came to join her for a long weekend. Heavily involved in an economics program at Berkeley, this particular weekend he had to finish a take-home exam. No quarter given for his language handicap, which wasn't very significant, actually. I offered to help, if I could, and the two of us spent most of the weekend huddled over the computer. I did the keyboarding/editing while he dictated. About 3:30 Saturday afternoon he realized that he did not have two crucial pieces of rather esoteric information with him that he needed to answer the question, so I volunteered to "run to the library" to get it.

I went to East first because I live close by, but they shook their heads, said it probably would have to be the USF Library in Tampa. But after some consultation, they made a call downtown and I was soon on my way to Main. It was nearly closing time on a Saturday, and that reference librarian was so wonderful to me. Between us, we found what we hoped were the right answers.

Pierre was enormously impressed; the information was just what he needed. He finished the paper and wrote us later that he got a B+, one of the best grades in the class. He always will be a good ambassador for American know-how after that experience. I was pleased but not surprised. That's the way this library works.

Watching the Clearwater Library system grow and thrive has been a constant source of pleasure to me. For a city of this size to have a main branch and four outlying branches is a marvel. We live outside the city limits, and I happily pay $31 a year for my card and consider it a great bargain.

I wish more people who come in to check out videos also would check out books, especially the people with small children. The traffic in and out is wonderful. The library offers meeting rooms for clubs and organizations, polling places to vote, story hours for children, lectures and discussions on all conceivable subjects _ a center for the community to gather round, like an old pot-bellied stove in past times.

I'd like to say thank you to the Clearwater Library. It has made my family's life here infinitely more interesting, worthwhile and productive. May it continue to nourish all those who live here. Many happy returns and a wonderful 75th birthday.

Mim Anne Houk of Clearwater is a regular columnist for the Times' Seniority section.