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New library stretches College Hill's limits

The new College Hill Branch Library hadn't been open for quite 15 minutes Sunday afternoon when three young girls in shorts and jackets bopped down 26th Street, intent on applying for membership cards.

They wanted to check out some mysteries, said Latonya Campbell, 11. And romances, added Tyheesha Gatling, 12. Any kind of books at all, chimed in Angela Riley, 13, as the three carefully crossed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

They eyed the big selection of fancy cars parked along the street next to the new library building and the hundreds of residents and local politicians milling around.

A dedication ceremony for the long-awaited library had just ended.

A little intimidated but not deterred, the girls shyly ventured inside.

Children such as these are why the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System's 16th branch is such an important one, said Gussie Livingston, a community activist who helped bring the library about.

"It's another opportunity for our children to have a bright future," she said. "This is truly a day for celebration."

And a day long in the making.

Residents of the east Tampa neighborhood first asked for a local library branch about eight years ago. They lobbied long and hard, working with numerous county and library officials and through miles of red tape to see the project through.

"I think good things come to those who wait," said Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman. The residents here "waited, and they waited and they waited, actually."

The same gloomy sky that cast a shadow over most of Tampa on Sunday just couldn't dim the joy and luster in those gathered at the new 8,500-square-foot library on the corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and 26th Street.

"It truly is a beautiful day," speaker after beaming speaker pronounced during the dedication ceremonies.

In an area often characterized by negative images of crime and poverty, the opening of a library takes on a whole new meaning, many said. Especially when the residents of the community themselves worked so hard to make it a reality.

Not only does the library open the doors of education and opportunity for everyone in the community, but it's important symbolically as well, Freedman and others said.

"This whole east Tampa area is being revitalized, rejuvenated and renewed," Freedman said. "It is one more piece of the puzzle making east Tampa better."

The crowd of about 200 at the library's opening also included most of the current Hillsborough County Commission, several past commissioners, Florida Sentinel-Bulletin publisher C. Blythe Andrews III, Tampa police Chief Bennie Holder, County Administrator Fred Karl and state Rep. Les Miller.

But it was someone less well-known, a member of the library system's board named Dora Reeder, who truly put the day into perspective for the crowd.

She talked about growing up in College Hill and racing to get to school where her sixth-grade teacher kept a rag-tag selection of books in one corner for pupils to read after they finished their lessons. She talked about not being able to go to the fancy, two-story library downtown because it was for whites only.

"I didn't know what a library was," she said. "I know now that teacher was trying to provide a library experience for us."