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Saturday, May 28, 2022

Librarian works to preserve Gainesville history

For most residents of Gainesville, this town is temporary. The mere launch pad of life, a stop on a train ride that isn’t over yet.

While many students take it for granted, there’s more history in this place than one can learn in four years.

And Bobby Powell, the local historian at the Alachua County Library and a Gainesville native, can tell you all about it — and she will if you let her.

“I talk too much,” she said over and over. “You have to keep me on track.”

Powell has so much to say because she’s seen so much go down.

She was one of the last to be born in Alachua County Hospital 71 years ago.

She remembers riding in her daddy’s truck when WWII ended, banging pot lids together while people cheered in the streets.

She can still see herself riding on the backs of boys’ motorcycles past the country fields where the Oaks Mall now stands.

She recalls her parents complaining about the bad traffic when the GIs came to UF in the 1950s, actually doubling the population in less than 10 years.

“It’s hard to think of something that’s stayed the same,” she said.

Her father warned her.

He said, “I grew up with no electricity, saw the Wright brothers, saw a man go to the moon. And mark my words, you will see more.”

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And he was right.

“It’s this computer that’s changed everything,” she said. “Air conditioning was nothing compared to this … Things are changing faster now, I can’t keep up with it.”

But Powell is not one to give up. She may be the oldest employee on staff, but you’d never guess her age if you saw her bobbing between book shelves, hustling through records, scrambling to help as many people as possible.

She’s been at this job for 20 years and said she sees no reason to quit anytime soon. It’s the job of her life, her favorite.

She’s doing what she loves: learning things, talking to people, and helping them connect with their surroundings, their ancestors and ultimately themselves.

“I love Florida history,” Powell said. “I’m fascinated with genealogy … Everything we do is because of something that happened before. Really, everything we do.”

Powell knows the key to understanding the present and preparing for the future is an intimacy with our pasts, and she’s there at the reference desk nearly every day, holding the door at the gates of time, waiting to show us the way and tell us everything.

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