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Access to library can be hardship

Sam Gordon remembers a time when the Mirror Lake Branch Library was about books.

Now, for him and others, it is about headaches.

Gordon, 88, is stooped and uses a cane. The 15 steps to the library's front door pose a tiring feat for him and for some others.

In January, the library opened its refurbished 1915 building and closed its 1951-built wing. With that closing went the ground entrance to the wing, where the bulk of the library's main collection was housed.

In the renovated library, the large-print books, reference materials, new books and magazines are on the top floor. Non-fiction and children's books are on the ground floor, said Mary Brown, library director for the St. Petersburg public library system.

Patrons have two entrance options to the building: 15 steps to the library's top floor or a ground-level back door. But even if librarygoers use the back door, they still have to climb steps now to get to the books and periodicals on the second floor.

"None of us are particularly happy that the facility has that accessibility problem," Brown said. "That was a concern to all of us before we opened the building. I hope that people don't think we're oblivious to the accessibility."

Brown said the city looked into providing a spiral ramp or an exterior lift leading to the second floor. But the plans were too expensive and the city could not figure out how to build the structures so that they would not interfere with the planned permanent addition, she said.

That addition, likely to be built where the 1951 building stands, would have an elevator to provide access to the renovated building, Brown said. The 1951 wing is set to be demolished in the next few months. Construction of the new wing is to begin in November and finish in September 1995, she said.

The refurbished library does not have elevator access. It is considered a landmark by the National Register of Historic Places, a registry that maintains that a property's historic character should be preserved by avoiding the alteration of characterizing features.

Patrons are encouraged to use the library's computer system to find out what books may be available to them. If a book they want is on the top floor, and they find it difficult to climb steps, library staff members retrieve the books, Brown said.

Brown said her staff has informed her, however, that some people who use the library are concerned about access.

She also said that patrons had expressed concern about the large-print books being on the top floor. Brown said the books soon may be moved to the lower level.

In the meantime, Gordon and others who live at the Pennsylvania Hotel, a block away from the library, contend with the steps. Many of the residents are older and use the library frequently, Gordon said.

"A friend said to me, "Do you see the beautiful lamps? Do you see the beautiful carpet and the furnishings?'

" Gordon said of the library's top floor. "I said, "All I came here for were books. If I went to a museum I'd be looking for everything beautiful.' "

Before, "we walked right in" and there was the main collection, said Gordon, who has used the library for 20 years.

Now, he said, "I'm beginning to think that someone in the library association doesn't care for the elderly."

Lucille Lumley, her 78-year-old husband and their daughter went to the library Friday. They went to the ground-floor entrance of the 1951 building and were surprised that it was closed.

They realized they had to climb the steps.

"I don't like it because a short time ago I had a hip fracture and it's hard to climb steps," Mrs. Lumley said. "I think it would be an inconvenience for people who can't climb steps at all."

Said Ethel Hanft, 82, a Pennsylvania Hotel resident, "I don't have a problem myself (climbing the steps), but Sam and so many people do. Nine out of 10 people in this hotel have problems with walking."