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Librarian to leave, start new chapter

All of Sumter County has fewer residents than Palm Harbor does, but Debra Rhodes is pleased with her new job.

She is resigning as director of the Palm Harbor Library to begin work as coordinator of the fledgling Sumter County library system. Rhodes led one library here, but in Sumter she will be responsible for five.

"Basically it's what I consider the next step for me," she said Friday. "And I wanted something a little bit bigger than what I have."

What Rhodes is sure to get is a challenge. She was hired to fill a new position, and she will be the only paid employee of the Sumter libraries.

"I'm it," Rhodes said. "I'm the only employee."

Rhodes, 39, is headed into familiar territory. Eight years ago, she was the first director hired for the Palm Harbor Library, which got its start in a volunteer's living room a decade earlier.

"She's the only director we've had," said Jeannette Malouf, one of the library's founders. "I guess we never thought very seriously about her leaving, but we knew it would happen one day."

Rhodes' last day in Palm Harbor is July 25. She and her greyhound, Julia, have friends in Sumter, a county of 33,000 residents. About 80 miles north of Pinellas, it is a rural area known for its produce.

She beat out 16 other applicants for the job, said John M. Jones, a Sumter County planner who led the selection committee. Her enthusiasm set her apart.

"It was an easy decision once we interviewed her," Jones said.

A search is under way for Rhodes' replacement, said Steve Putnam, chairman of the Palm Harbor Community Services Agency, which supervises the library.

"We will find another librarian," he said. "We will not find another Debra Rhodes."

Rhodes said she will leave behind good friends and memories. When she came to Palm Harbor from Portsmouth, Va., in spring 1987, it was "somewhat of a culture shock," she said. "I was used to an organized library system, not a library in a tiny church."

Then operated by volunteers and stocked with donated books, the library was housed in a Methodist church. "I had a desk and some bookcases behind the Communion rail," she said. "The crucifix hung behind me. I used to joke that Lee Iacocca didn't have a stained glass window in his office. It was definitely different."

But the library was destined for a permanent home. Residents had voted the year before to tax themselves to support it, along with a recreation league. The library moved to 2330 Nebraska Ave. in 1988 and doubled its size during renovations last year. Today it is among the half-dozen largest libraries in the county.

While the library can lean on the tax collections, volunteers remain its backbone. The library has about 140 of them, frequently cited as the most in the county. The 400-member Friends of the Library also provides a hunk of support, supplying books, equipment and cash donations.

The volunteer tradition will endure, Rhodes said. "That's something that's not going to go away. Whether I'm still here, they'll still be here."