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An interactive whirl

If you haven't been to the library lately, you're overdue.

Gone are the dusty volumes, musty smells and hallowed silence.

Instead, you can take a class in Chinese music and dance, attend an artist's lecture, reserve a room for your club meeting or cruise the Internet. You can check out audio books for your road trip or kids' videos for Saturday night and, of course, you can check out the latest bestsellers.

In the past 15 years, libraries have evolved into lively community centers. Circulation in Tampa has more than doubled since 1987. Twenty-two libraries, and three more in the works, are keeping stride with the rapidly growing Hillsborough County population.

Last year, 71 percent of county residents were registered borrowers, and the number keeps growing.

"The biggest change in libraries over the last 10 years is Internet access," said Andrew Breidenbaugh, coordinator of reference and information services. "It's the pivotal thing. People do their initial research ahead of time, then come to the library for more. It raises the bar for us."

On a recent visit to the Jimmie B. Keel Regional Library, activity surged through the doorway and rippled through the building. Twenty-three computer stations were filled while newcomers waited in line. (There are 562 computers throughout the county system for public access.)

Dads corralled children toward the picture books, while others formed lines to check out materials. The copy machine room was busy, and there was a constant flow to the reference desk. Behind the desk two librarians answered questions: Can you help me find something on the clown fish? I want to know if you have the book Cancer Conqueror, An Incredible Journey to Wellness. Where's the nearest ATM? Can I take today's Wall Street Journal home with me? May I borrow the telephone white pages?

"The Internet has brought more people into the library," said Susan Hawk, senior librarian. "Circulation would be cut tremendously without it, but you can't get everything from the Internet. That's why we still have books."

Some naysayers thought the Internet would render libraries obsolete, but according to American Libraries magazine, they were wrong. "Who knows more about Web resources than almost any other profession?" asks an article in the magazine's May 2002 issue. "Who has the knowledge to ensure that sources are relevant and authoritative? Librarians do."

Tampa-Hillsborough Public Libraries are using the trend to meet customer needs. Seven "e-libraries" have sprung up around the county in recreation centers to reach low-income or underserved areas. In partnership with libraries, the county recreation department allows students at recreation centers to access the Library's Web page ( They can order books that can be sent to their homes or the recreation center, locate reference materials or enjoy the special games or links set up by the library's Webmaster.

A library bookmobile also travels to neighborhoods. It has wireless technology so that clients can search the library catalog, place holds on books and check them out.

Another innovation is Alleycat, a program that allows reciprocal borrowing among 12 Tampa Bay counties. It's an online interlibrary loan service that searches collections of more than 25 public and academic libraries.

Quick Question is a reference service for people on the go. It can be accessed through e-mail or a simple phone call. A centralized reference department known as Electronic Reference and Information answers questions seven days a week. If the librarians can't find the information quickly enough, they'll look it up and call the customer back.

People are also returning to the library in large numbers for the special programs. Local librarians watch and listen to their customers and try to determine what a particular community needs. Then they try to fill that niche.

Traditional story time has always been a hit, but now there's baby time, toddler time and bedtime story time. Classes include computer skills, gardening, yoga, feng shui and resume writing.

The summer programming for children is always in high demand.

"We're only limited by funding," said Patrice Koerper, public relations director for the countywide system. "Plan it and they will come."

Branches have offered about 30 programs this summer about magic, ventriloquism, juggling, animals and crafts.

Technology and programming are not the only things changing; librarians have expanded their boundaries professionally. Forty years ago, Priscilla Lakus started right out of high school as a library assistant.

"Few of the librarians had a master's degree at that time," she said. "We didn't have a lot of professional librarians."

She was a librarian on the bookmobile and ran a small branch.

Now with a master's degree in library science, she is chief librarian of youth services. She oversees partnerships with the Museum of Science and Industry, the Head Start preschool program for low-income families, and other organizations.

Jane English, publications librarian, joined the Tampa library staff in 1995, after two other successful careers. When her son turned 5, she went back to school to get a degree in library science.

Her undergraduate degree in art history ties in with her librarian job. She writes and designs all publications put out by the public relations and partnerships department. She works on the library's Web page, compiles the events calendar and puts out a staff newsletter.

Over the years she has served in different departments. One assignment involved helping to relocate the Port Tampa City library to its new location in a renovated Commerce Bank building in 1998.

"It became the focal point of revitalization in the neighborhood," English said. "On the final day of moving, people lined up for three blocks symbolically passing the last book from the old library to the new library."

Donya Odum helps her daughters, Jada and Kyah Williams, 5 and 7, paint online at the Jimmie B. Keel Regional Library, which has 23 computer stations. County libraries offers 562 computers in all.

Vanesa Carreno, 6, peruses the children's videotapes at the Jimmie B. Keel Regional Library.

Darrell Works reads to his son, Hunter, 3, at one of the county's 22 libraries. Three more are in the works. Most county residents are registered borrowers.

Michael Marino, 8, walks through the Keel library with a basket full of books and tapes. He is a voracious reader, his mother says, having read more than 100 books.