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Mirror Lake Community Library celebrates its centennial with long gone benefactor Andrew Carnegie

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The Mirror Lake Community Library is celebrating its centennial this year. The library first opened on December 1, 1915. To celebrate, library staff, supporters and city officials gathered in the Andrew Carnegie room on the second floor of the renovated library to music, conversation and even a visit from Carnegie himself.

Though Carnegie died just four years after the library opened, historic actor Michael Norton dressed in the philanthropist’s likening and explained why he contributed to building 3,000 free, public libraries throughout the world.

Carnegie grew up a poor immigrant with a penchant for learning. He spent his younger years in a Pittsburg public library gathering as much knowledge as he could while meticulously moving his way from job to job, each one paying better than the one before until he was widely regarded as the richest man in the world.

“No greater good could come than from a free and open library,” Norton said through a thick Scottish accent.

He went on to quote Carnegie.

“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library,” Norton said. “No man becomes rich unless he enriches others.”

It is with that mindset the city has continued to support its public library system and preserve and enhance the Mirror Lake Community Library. Built in 1915 for just $17,500, the building fell into disrepair by the 1970s and 80s. A newly restored and expanded library opened in 1997 boasting interior restored to its historic charm as well as an exterior face-lift.

The original library was one of just 14 Carnegie libraries built and Florida and today remains as only one of two remaining in operation as a library.

It’s historic significance in St. Pete is also not to be undersold. The library just feet from City Hall stands as the first library opened to city residents.

“It’s not a small feat,” said library director Mika Nelson. “We’re very, very pleased that it is still here and used as a library.”

St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman also lauded the library’s past and current success. The library began with just 2,600 collections. By 1945 that count had grown to 45,000. Currently the community library serves not just as an educational resource through books, it also offers various community programs, computers and entertainment.

“Libraries have become so much more today than what they were when we were growing up,” Kriseman said. “They’re not only a place where you can read and research, but they become gathering places.”

The library served cake and other refreshments as visitors perused historic photographs of the original building and its transformation through time. Local Cellist Michael Thomas played an eye-watering rendition of Gunther Shuller’s Cello solo, Fantasy.

The mood throughout the building on the actual 100th anniversary of the library’s opening was both jubilant and historic. Looking around the second floor room, the building’s return to historic roots was obvious. Paired with a Carnegie look-alike and live classical music, it was reminiscent of the library’s early days.

“May this library have another glorious 100 years to celebrate,” Kriseman said.

The library will host another presentation this Saturday at 2 p.m. with panel discussions by Jon Wilson, Jeannette Wenzel, Susan Churuti, Carol Lee Wathen and Peggy Harris — a collection of library frequenters and historic enthusiasts.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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