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March 3, 2003


The Library Plans for the Future

Where Have All the Books Gone?

By Sue Cauthen

It's 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 Valley.

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 computers.

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 yes.

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 beforehand?

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 mean reading?"

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.