The Library Plans for the Future
Where Have All the Books Gone?
By Sue Cauthen
deja vu all over again at the library. Remember the Main? The new $109
million Main Library, that is. A city librarian lost his job over the mass
exodus of books because, whoops! the architects deleted bookshelf space to
make room for a six-story atrium and other amenities. Voila! A beautiful
interior space that seemed to be hiding the Main Library's million-strong
book collection. Nine years and at least one lawsuit later, there remains
about $29 million worth of work to be done, and visitors still have a hard
time figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B.
Now comes Act Two. Bearing charts, schematic drawings, and buzzwords,
San Francisco Public Library is moving into high gear on a $106 million
renovation of branch libraries, from the Richmond district to Visitacion
The plan sounds great: build five new libraries and earthquake-proof
and modernize nineteen more. Make them accessible to the disabled and
equip them with living room-grade furniture and cutting-edge information
technology. But in the rush to retrofit, something got left behind.
The fact is that books are becoming stepchildren in the library of the
future. There's a move to replace tens of thousands of books with
computers, and a new focus on providing lounges, community rooms, and
audio-visual materials. In short, the 21st-Century library in
San Francisco could become a community center with books. Has technology
trumped Thoreau? E-mail preempted Emerson? Or, to paraphrase the Examiner,
has HAL dispatched Hawthorne?
The way deputy city librarian Paul Underwood sees it, San Franciscans
have access to the library 24/7 via home computers. He and city librarian
Susan Hildreth favor ordering books on-line and reducing the number of
volumes in our 26 branches to make room for services that will attract
more folks into the library whether they're interested in books or not.
While it's a public service to teach computer literacy and home mortgage
principles at the library, the downside is that our literary heritage just
does not seem to be an issue.
And there's a precedent. The national model is the Queens library in
New York. According to library statistics, it has more visitors per capita
than practically any other U.S. library, a big bonus with state and local
legislatures that link funding to maximum use per square foot.
Visit the Queens website (www.queenslibrary.org/)
and plug into what sounds like the activity center of the five boroughs.
The Queens library's thick events calendar features stand-up comics night,
lessons in mambo dancing, something called "hand analysis," and
instruction in making everything from wire animals to beaded earrings.
There's yoga in the morning ("sculpt your body and achieve inner peace")
and Irish step dancing at night.
We especially liked the Valentines Day offerings: baby coupons, free
grocery prizes, a test for measuring compatibility by analyzing your
sweetheart's name, Valentine's jokes and, blush, a list of romance novels.
Love was surely in the air at the Queens library on February 14. And just
in case anyone felt left out, the cyber offering was sponsored by Nexium,
a medicine promising 24-hour heartburn relief.
No surprise then that San Francisco library's Hildreth says up-to-date
computers are just as important as up-to-date books. She told a television
interviewer that people want computers and best sellers in the library.
Not quite, according to pollster David Binder's survey for SFPL. He found
that 82% of the 2,355 folks he surveyed want more books in their
libraries. About 53% want comfortable seating and only 44% want more
Still the people at library headquarters insist that the public really
wants to come to the library to use the computers. Book buffs like
Charlotte Breckenridge, a onetime economist at the Library of Congress,
are dismayed. She chastised SFPL for ignoring its own surveys and told
Hildreth at a public meeting that its information-gathering effort is
flawed since it is designed to get the results the library wants.
Though branch librarians don't like it, SFPL's cyber-focused mindset
welcomes school kids who use the computers by the hour to play video
games. Or tourists who drop in to do their e-mail. "I wish they would at
least read a newspaper while they're waiting to use the computer," said
one librarian. "But they're just not interested." Clearly, libraries can
and maybe even should attempt to serve a broad spectrum of community
needs. But at whose expense? Should the library banish books to cater to
hoped-for gains in techie traffic? Should SFPL spend public funds to
design a cy-brary for the future when it's being done at the expense of
the present? At the moment, the decision-makers' answer is a qualified
In line with this view, SFPL planned to remove 4,500 books from the
Excelsior library to make room for more computers and a lounge. But things
got a little testy. "That's unacceptable," said Tony Sacco of the New
Mission Terrace Neighborhood Association, which speaks for 1,200
households. "Libraries are for books." Library commissioner Steve Coulter
has cautioned SFPL to consider the political implications of massive
reductions in bookshelf space. So now SFPL is only going to reduce the
Excelsior inventory by 2,300 books.
The Binder survey and others taken at individual libraries show that
folks come to the library primarily to check out books. But the library
sees it as a question of High Tech vs. High Touch, with the latter in
retrograde. However, being forced to order books on-line can short-change
students, those without home computers, and thousands still seeking
computer literacy. If you don't see the book reviews every Sunday, how do
you know you want to read a book unless you can take a look at it
What SFPL overlooks is that book-lovers also love to browse. Like
Marina Merchants Association president Jim Maxwell, they see libraries as
voyages of discovery. "It's not about the Internet and ordering books
on-line. It's about picking up a book because the title sounds
interesting, reading a few pages, and taking it home."
What is the library's vision? Nobody knows for sure. In what insiders
interpret as a reaction to public pressure for a meaningful voice, city
librarian Hildreth just convened a group to come up with a strategic plan.
A sensible undertaking but self-serving.
Why? Because the library hand-picked the 20 panel members. Six work for
the library. Three are from library support groups. Two are from the
Willie Brown-selected Library Commission. And if they don't do what Willie
wants, they're toast. Two are from the Chamber of Commerce, one from SPUR,
and a handful more from city agencies. But there's no one who speaks for
the neighborhoods or neighborhood organizations. You get the idea.
Significantly, these meetings are not covered by Sunshine. There is no
taped record kept and, oh yes, no public comment. In fact, the meetings
weren't even advertised to the public.
Anyway, the committee was given a list of thirteen library services and
asked to pick the ones they thought were most important. One little hitch
though: not one of the services mentioned books or reading. Library
commissioner Carol Steiman asked the facilitator which one to pick if you
wanted to see Aristotle or Socrates in the library: i.e., which category
applied to literature. "Literature?" said the bemused facilitator. "You
When a similar test was given at the Marina library, the seventeen
participants were thoroughly confused. Library consultant June Garcia
interpreted the results as a call for a meeting room, comfortable chairs,
more programs, best sellers, books on tape, videos, andů more computers.
The primer for SFPL's service choices is The New Planning for
Results by Sandra Nelson, a book we couldn't find at SFPL.
"Manufacturing results is more like it," sniffed a disgruntled observer.
"Or planning for consent."
When it comes to informed consent at SFPL, there's another drawback:
Library administration has a habit of getting key documents to the library
commissioners not long before the commission meeting begins. With no time
to study and analyze reports authorizing the expenditure of millions of
dollars of public funds, the Library Commission generally asks a few
questions, maybe tweaks the plan gently, and approves it unanimously.
Incidentally, the public never gets the reports ahead of time.
Little opportunity for meaningful public comment there. And not a whole
lot of Sunshine.
What to do? A cadre of library insiders, the writer included, wants to
see an independent Citizens Advisory Committee for the library. It could
check out SFPL's plans, ask some challenging questions, and fill in the
Board of Supervisors on the answers. Further, it could provide something
that just doesn't exist: an independent forum where the people could
discuss library plans, programs, and operations. To say the library
opposes the idea is like saying that the sun shines.
But the library's own support groups aren't set up to ask challenging
questions and don't really want to. The so-called Public Advisory
Committee was hand-picked by the library, is not covered by Sunshine, has
low attendance, and rarely brings up controversial issues. Its agendas are
set by SFPL, which conducts the meetings and, basically, tells members
what SFPL is going to do.
An independent Library Citizens Advisory Committee is a bedrock issue.
It could set its own agendas and conduct its own meetings. It could ask
the questions that need to be asked about the Book Diaspora and the plan
to centralize branch collection ordering downtown, an idea deplored by
neighborhood librarians keen on catering to our diverse communities. It
could check out the cost overruns on new library sites and the 5%
reduction in the scope of the library's $106 million modernization
program. It could find out why SFPL is reissuing its defeated plan for a
collection agency to retrieve overdue books, or why library pages face
massive cuts in benefits and working hours. And it could ask why SFPL has
spent nearly $600,000 since 2000 to finance a Tool Lending Center, using
money the voters earmarked for more books and open hours at the branches.
Will there ever be an opportunity for meaningful public input at the
library? Not until there is meaningful public outreach. The way it stands
today, only a citizens advisory committee that is independent of the
library can do the job.
Sue Cauthen is a former English teacher and a member of the
Sunshine Ordinance Task Force.