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The library _ shhhh! _ quietly turns over a new leaf

On a cool weekday afternoon, outside downtown's John F. Germany Public Library, the noise from traffic whizzing off the interstate is softened by the sound of the fountains. On the low wall a few people sit, a man drinking a Zephyrhills; a woman smoking. A man in a crisp madras shirt carrying a plastic grocery bag full of books walks in. A man with a face that's seen too much weather, on his back a duffel bag two-thirds the size of his body, walks out.

We're smack in the middle of the mayor's proposed cultural arts district which, insofar as we know, does not involve the library. The not-exciting 1968 building is sandwiched between the Tampa Museum of Art and the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. There's talk of new buildings for both, one to accommodate the celebrated Florida Orchestra that gets booted out of Carol Morsani Hall by lucrative Broadway road shows. Considering this approach to culture, one might worry about the library _ possibly even a bigger hard sell on the cultural bandwagon because it's, well, books. And for things to get exciting, they have to be read.

The library has no free parking, and some of its clientele _ those who have no homes _ don't have the best reputation. Nevertheless, the library _ a real big-city place with a million volumes and sophisticated electronic research tools _ is undergoing a quiet renaissance of its own.

Inside the main entrance, the space is open and bright, centered by an impressive bank of computers. Business and government documents are now available in the main research room. Library researchers are at the ready. As is an armed Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy.

The mezzanine-like second floor is surprisingly pleasant, with new carpeting and shelving and abstract expressionist paintings and neo-primitive sculptures by Tampa artists Don Butler and Angela Dickerson, respectively. A glass case displays beautiful illuminated pages _ one of them a 17th century Persian manuscript from Omar Khayam. The east building is now the place for children, with primary color tables and chairs and a children's librarian. Here also is adult fiction, CDs and videos, other areas in which this library has traditionally lagged. Noontime book discussions and a librarian who can recommend a good novel, it is hoped, will draw the lunch-hour crowd.

When asked what the mayor can do for her library, chief librarian Jean Peters laughs softly. "We're in the best shape we've been in the last 20 years," she says, pointing to the extent and quality of library resources and services. There has been no cut in hours as there has been at many of the country's urban libraries. As for customers, she would like to see more of them.

On this afternoon, there are about 25 people downstairs, 15 upstairs, a dozen in the genealogy room. In the popular library space, there is only one young man at a desk and a dad at a table reading to two preschoolers.

About eight or so customers in the main building have duffels and plastic bags stuffed with clothes stashed underneath their desks. They wear baseball caps and corporate-logo sweat shirts. At a double desk, a divider separating them, two such men sit. One is reading a book; the other, a tabloid-size newspaper, but the John McCain book is also on his desk. Others read the Times front page, the Tribune commentary page, a boxing magazine.

Everyone is quiet. Except one. A woman in a black business suit with blond-streaked hair squats in an aisle, her skirt riding up on her tan legs. "When you see him, have him call his cell phone please," she says into her own.

Jean Peters welcomes all her customers. Or at least all who follow the library's written code of conduct: no eating, no sleeping, no washing clothes in the bathroom sinks, no loud anything. Problems do not arise from any particular population.

Of her homeless customers, she says, "We're glad to see them. And in some cases, when we don't see them we worry about them."

_ Sandra Thompson is a writer who lives in Tampa.