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April 18, 2003


Planning for Mediocrity

Don't BLIP the Branch Libraries

By Sue Cauthen

San Francisco Public Library hosted a two-fer the other day. First a meeting of its Branch Library Improvement Program "advisory" board, known with some understatement as the BLIP; then a lavish reception honoring Supervisor Matt Gonzalez.

Downtown at library headquarters, they really do call the $106 million bond-backed branch renovation plan the BLIP, which is kind of what they're trying to do to books. Simultaneously, they are busting their bookshelves trying to defeat a grassroots effort to establish a Library Citizens Advisory Committee reporting to the Board of Supervisors.

How many folks attended the BLIP's soi-disant "advisory" meeting? If you don't count the library folks and their support groups, only one. And that was a SPUR representative who just happens to be a principal in the design firm that built the Main Library. But there was a nice turnout for at the party, which was thrown by the Friends & Foundation of the Library.

The buzz and twitter stopped when Supervisor Gonzalez began to speak. He told the well-heeled crowd that he favors Instant Runoff Voting, a minimum wage, and the Green Party.. Then he started talking about books, the ones he read as a boy in Texas, including the political thinkers who influenced him -- "everyone from Locke to Marx, including Plato." He said he favors strong branch libraries and noted that his own book collection is overflowing his bookshelves. He stacks them on the floor, he said, and in boxes by his bed. Unlike the library, Matt keeps his books where he can read them. Two days after the Giants opening game, the president of the Board of Supervisors stepped up to the plate and hit a home run for books. Way to go, Matt!


Neighborhood library book collections, and their size after branches are remodeled, is a front-burner issue in the community. There is concern about library plans to reduce the number of books in its branches, in favor of creating what state librarian Kevin Starr calls "entertainment malls." A coterie of community groups supports independent oversight of library activities via a Citizens Advisory Committee that reports to the supervisors. You can bet the library is against it.

Fact is, there is a mini-crisis at Library Central because it looks like the $106 million bond budget is getting used up too quickly. There are five new libraries to build and nineteen more due for retrofit. But the city Real Estate Department's cost estimates were "inadequate," Susan Hildreth reports. As a consequence, the library is about $2 million in the hole. Then there's the $10 million the library counted on in state funds. SFPL was left at the turnstile in its first try. And Hildreth is concerned about future prospects.

"I never thought we would be funded for the Excelsior library," Hildreth told the Library Commission last Thursday (April 17), referring to the failed bid. The money minders in Sacramento favor libraries that plan to expand so they will have room to preserve their book collections when they upgrade technologically. Instead SFPL planned to chop the Excelsior book inventory by 10%. (Neighborhood outcry has since cut that number to 2.5%.) 

A bid for nearly $5 million for the Richmond branch expansion is pending, as are 3 - 4 others. But Hildreth says "it is unlikely that we will achieve (our) $10 million goal." If Richmond isn't tapped this fall, look for further project downsizing. Already Marina's planned expansion has been cut by a third and Hildreth is lukewarm to a campaign for more room at Parkside branch.

To cut overhead, she favors using "bookmobiles" instead of storefronts to house branch collections while construction is underway. Hildreth reasons that SFPL can pick up about $3 million for branch building via this strategy, whereby "a clear direction would be affirmed that the Commission sees as a priority completing all projects as promised to the voters." In English this means that Hildreth thinks it's better to focus on building branches than to pay for storefront sites while neighborhood libraries are closed for construction. Since the prior library leaders racked up major shortfalls in meeting SFPL's commitments, this is sound thinking.

But SFPL's unfortunate reputation for "bait and switch," coupled with current planning glitches, points up the need for independent oversight of library activities. And not just during the branch building project.

But SFPL blinks at the strong community sentiment in favor of a Library Citizens Advisory Committee linked to the Board of Supervisors. Despite appeals by heavy hitters like San Francisco Tomorrow and the 38 neighborhood organizations that constitute the Coalition for SF Neighborhoods, SFPL gets the bends whenever the subject comes up. The folks running things these days are imports from other libraries and they are still adjusting to the culture shock of a city where everyone wants to get into the act -- and usually does.

Citizens Advisory Committees are "business as usual" in San Francisco. The CAC is a low-cost method of providing substantive community input in a forum dignified by ordinance, free from bureaucratic control, and covered by Sunshine. Significantly, there is no obligation to act on CAC suggestions, though the present Board of Supervisors favors informed citizen participation. 

Consider: A $106 million, 10-year branch building program is rolling out in every neighborhood , yet there is no meaningful public process. Sure, the library puts on the requisite community meetings but comments that run counter to SFPL's game plan are glossed over or ignored.
SFPL's so-called bond advisory board is packed with supporters. But how can folks whose purpose is to support the library suddenly become library watchdogs? Fact: something needs to change. The public's valid questions about the polarization between books and computers are dismissed out of hand. Requests for citizen participation in selection of branch architects and designers is ignored by both SFPL and the Library Commission. 

According to library statistics, Excelsior's book collection was stripped of around 15,000 volumes to make room for more computers and a lounge. This scenario was repeated at the Marina branch. The Richmond library took an even bigger hit.

Librarians are constantly ordering new books but the key issue is what books are removed or "weeded" to create space in the stacks. SFPL's current strategy is to remove rows of bookshelves to cater to people who don't normally borrow books. In short, visitor head count is becoming the new bottom line. This MBA mentality is reminiscent of Wall Street bean counters who downgrade a stock if income dips. But SFPL's use figures are up markedly, despite a population drop.

"People have to get over the idea that books are sacred," said a librarian who attends Hildreth's BLIP advisory board. "Removing books makes libraries more attractive." (Is this unclear on the concept or what?)

Some librarians will tell you that placing fewer books on the shelves increases circulation. This may account for another BLIP board member's comment that shelves that aren't crammed with books make for more checkouts. We never quite saw the causal relationship. 

These logic disconnects aside, SFPL has clearly come down with terminal disease. "Computers are a necessity," said another San Francisco librarian, "but I'd hate to see libraries turn into amusement arcades."

"There are deeper measures of a library's worth than how many people walk through the door," said still another SFPL librarian who didn't want to be identified. "We have to be sure functions only the library can perform aren't shunted aside because we are doing too many new things," she said. 'Failing to reserve enough money, space, and staff for books attacks the heart of the library."

The library's guide for its branch upgrade program is The New Planning for Results by Sandra Nelson. It teaches library administrators how to make their "facilities" appealing to legislators who control library funding. But operating capital really isn't a big issue at SFPL. Thanks to a generous set-aside from property taxes, the library easily pays for its activities. In fact, it does not expect to cut staff or services during the present budget crunch.
Still SFPL is pursuing a plan that sees libraries as community centers with books. Administrators are hooked on Sandra Nelson's "Thirteen Service Choices," none of which mention books or reading. But SFPL overlooks Nelson's fallback option. If strategic planners don't warm to the thirteen choices, she suggests an alternate method of planning. This appears to leave a lot of leeway for insertion of traditional services. 

Part of the problem is that the library has circled the wagons and refuses to provide for legitimate neighborhood input on either its BLIP or strategic planning boards. Instead it caters to its own support groups, and downtown organizations like SPUR and the Chamber of Commerce.

In a letter obtained by the SF Call, library activist Jeannene Przyblyski, president of the Friends of Noe Valley neighborhood group, told the city librarian she is concerned about "the barriers to good public process" created by current library practices. She criticized SFPL's "disproportionate reliance" on picking board members of the Friends & Foundation of the Library to represent the public, noting that there is "an innate conflict of interest" when a library support body is expected to fulfill "support" and "public oversight" functions simultaneously.

She said the same is true of SFPL's branch support group, the Council of Neighborhood. Libraries. Hildreth appoints members liberally to library committees and then expects them to wear two hats: library support and library oversight. "I wanted to say I like books," said a CNL member after a strategic planning session. "But the structure of the meeting had no place for that."

But if trying to turn a library supporter into a library watchdog is like trying to turn toothpaste into caviar, what is the answer?

Przyblyski recommends "reconstituting the CNL" into a group that provides both support and oversight. But this begs the question. If the Friends and Foundation can't perform both functions simultaneously, how can the CNL? Alternatively, she advocates a private oversight body or an independent advisory committee selected by the Board of Supervisors.

But the stakes are too high to play board games. The new Neighborhood Library Coalition worries that without independent input on building design, the remodeled branches could end up like the New Main, "an awkwardly functioning building of no architectural distinction." It told the Board of Supervisors that, because of SFPL's tight control of agendas and discussion at meetings of its hand-picked advisory boards, "the library is administering a $106 million dollar project with little or no public oversight."


Sue Cauthen is a member of the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force and coordinator of the Neighborhood Library Coalition.