A 21st-Century Library for San Francisco
Books Are Still Pores in the Face of Life*
By Sue Cauthen
To paraphrase Alice in Wonderland, things are getting curiouser and
curiouser at the library.
The bigwigs at 100 Larkin rolled out their ideas for the 21st-century
library the other day. And quite a show it was: a blend of Future Shock
and Cyber Present, with a little Disneyland and Modern Merchandising
thrown in for ballast.
"This is really scary," whispered a book lover in the audience at SPUR,
the political think tank that put on the event. More formally known San
Francisco Planning & Urban Research Association, SPUR is a focal point for
folks who make things happen locally. Seminar host was Peter Winklestein,
a principal in the firm that designed the Main Library.
All this was prime time stuff for the SPUR audience of architects and
land use buffs because it provided the first comprehensive look at how San
Francisco Public Library (SFPL) wants to spend its $106 million branch
library renovation budget. On tap: five new libraries and modernization of
nineteen more. And, oh my, the things we could see.
What is Library Central's vision? Forget the Cat in the Hat. Instead,
picture a Neverland of banners, buzz words, and bibelots -- and, yes, even
a few sorry assortments of books pushed up against the wall to make room
for a kaleidoscope of "fun" activities. SFPL's Power Point presentation
focused mostly on new titles and presented even them as something of an
afterthought. What about the library as the repository of the wisdom of
the ages? Not a word about it.
You want to know what SFPL has in mind? High-concept play toys,
upholstered furniture, and conference rooms filled with what looked like
the Armani set, all networking like crazy. Now some of this is kind of a
treat, like the aquarium and dinosaur exhibit at the Cerritos library in
Remember, though, these Big Picture libraries are huge buildings --
Cerritos is 80,000 sq. ft. And the new Alum Rock library in San Jose is
26,000 sq. ft. The average San Francisco branch ranges between 6,000
and10,000 sq. ft., clearly too small for a lot of frills -- if you want
space to preserve, say, the book collection.
But that's not the idea lighting up the linear librarians these days.
Their preference is to shrink book inventories to make room for amenities
designed to attract a host of new "customers" (yep, that's what they call
them). A patron might drop in for a latte and a look at the DVD
collection. Or to check out Citicorp's latest 10K report. Or maybe even to
pick up a book ordered online at home. Assuming that you are computer
literate and own a computer. An amazing number of over-50 San Franciscans
aren't and don't. But many of those who do complain about how hard it is
to deal with SFPL's slow computers and nebulous way-finders.
Even SFPL's own teen panel, as computer-savvy as they come, have
complained that they can't browse books on the Internet. Books are looking
more and more like stepchildren in the library of the future. But thanks
to the bond-financed branch building program, in San Francisco, the future
"People look to the library for much more than books," said Library
Commission president Charles Higueras at the SPUR conclave. And City
Librarian Susan Hildreth told the roomful of architects and city planners
that her vision for the 21st-century library is a blend of "entertainment
venue," "community living room," and "mall experience," leavened with
liberal helpings of retail precepts borrowed from Starbucks, Home Depot,
Barnes & Noble, and Borders.
One of her templates is the Cerritos library in Orange County, which
hired Disneyland planners to walk them though the drill. Another, in
Lincoln, Nebraska, hustles business with banners and what looked like a
large stuffed fish hanging from the ceiling outside. It was an example of
"library as mall experience," according to Hildreth.
Of course, both the Marin City and South Novato libraries are in
shopping centers. And the Sausalito library is in City Hall. The new Mill
Valley library is in a stand of redwoods and looks like an upscale resort.
But all four libraries are book-centered, as are all the Marin libraries.
Sure there are videos and computers, but they are not the focus. And
librarians don't, er, push the product.
Metropolitan libraries, by contrast, serve a different demographic and
see chain bookstores as competition. But Jane and Joe San Francisco have
neither the fancy nor the funds to buy every book they want to read.
That's where libraries come in, said Jean Chaitin, a member of the Cow
Hollow Association. "People can't afford to buy every book they want to
read, and they don't have the bookshelf space anyway." Making a wide range
of titles available "is something that libraries do that bookstores can't.
They can't afford to."
A Bernal Heights mom offered another perspective. "Sure, my son waits
eagerly to play the video games at the library. But he is so proud to walk
down Mission Street with an armful of books. And he's the best reader in
What brings people to libraries? Is it books, videos and CDs,
computers? Are the adults looking for a place to study or cool out? Do the
school kids need the reference books for research? All of the above, say
most neighborhood librarians. Not necessarily, says Hildreth.
Many people don't want to come into the library for their information,
she said. But when they do, they want bestsellers and computers. "Virtual
library service is a big part of what we do. The modern librarian is a
navigator of the Internet."
Hildreth said people also "expect a Starbucks experience in the
library." She stressed the importance of making libraries more like a
retail establishment and "marketing and merchandising" their goods and
services. Not bad precepts in the abstract, but it's how this philosophy
plays out that is spooking people who like to read books.
They are treating libraries like businesses," said one architect
privately. "But a company that neglects its core business to pursue niche
markets goes bankrupt." A young SFPL librarian sees it this way:
"Computers are for quick and easy access to information, but books are for
Putting the brainstorms and buzz words on hold for the moment, consider
a few statistics. David Binder's survey for SFPL found that 82% of San
Franciscans want more books in their libraries. Some 53% want a pleasant
place to read and study, while only 44% want more computers. Surveys in
the individual branches produce similar results.
Another key fact: adults account for 70% of the borrowing activity at
the main library and the 26 branches. This is not some far-fetched fantasy
when you remember that folks aged 19-64 are the major population segment.
Put simply, there are just more of them.
The two mayoral front-runners have also weighed in. Supervisor Gavin
Newsom tells campaign crowds that children under 18 account for only 14%
of the city's population. (Affordable housing could fix that, but it's not
here yet.) Adults over 65 also weigh in at 14%. This leaves 72% of the
public. What to do?
Both Newsom and Tom Ammiano have hinted that a more responsive Library
Commission would be a start. The experts say that balancing library
collections and services with the community's wish list is a policy
question for SFPL. Only future use figures will determine who was right.
For now, Hildreth reports, the library is enjoying soaring popularity.
(But if it ain't broke, why the rush to fix it?.)
Meanwhile, the planning for branch renovations and new buildings is in
high gear. Never mind that the library has overspent by $2 million on site
acquisitions. Or that City Hall fiscal whiz kids like Monique Moyer are
worried that SFPL's $106 million might run out before all the promised
upgrades are complete. Or that SFPL has a penchant for ignoring public
comment and/or facts that run counter to its game plan.
Consider this: branches were ordered to "weed" or reduce their book
collections significantly to make room for the amenities SFPL thinks will
bring more bodies through the front door. Books that were missing weren't
replaced. Books deemed "underperforming" (read: not checked out recently)
were removed and won't be replaced. By attrition then, many branch book
collections have already shrunk by at least 25%.
But what about the surveys that say folks want more books? If you
ignore the facts you don't like, what then? At the Marina and Noe Valley
branches, community leaders produced their own surveys and persuaded SFPL
to distribute them. A total of 78% said they wanted more books. At the
Richmond branch, where there was also a separate question to measure a
preference for books, the score was 77%.
But SFPL blindsided the neighborhood leaders in North Beach who drew up
a community-specific survey last week. "We don't need community input,"
said the branch manager. Instead, SFPL rushed out its generic survey,
which lists the video/DVD question first and the key book question last.
It studiously avoids a separate question to measure a preference for
books, instead lumping books into a question that simultaneously measures
periodicals and audiovisual materials. In short, the survey is structured
to get high marks on the things SFPL wants to emphasize.
If you don't have glaring statistics to dispute your decisions, you can
do pretty much what you want. It wasn't just William Henry Vanderbilt who
said "the public be damned."
Both Newsom and Ammiano favor an independent Citizens Advisory
Committee for the library. They believe that the neighborhoods should
determine what is inside their libraries. A grassroots CAC proposal,
brokered by Supervisor Jake McGoldrick, went before the Library Commission
June 5. But SFPL and the Commission are fearful of losing control and are
pressuring McGoldrick to support a mega-sized body that only meets six
times a year and excludes obvious members like the Coalition for SF
Neighborhoods, which speaks for 38 community groups citywide.
We may not be able to tell you here how it all worked out but we'll be
around. Stay tuned.
Sue Cauthen is a member of the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force and
coordinator of the Neighborhood Library Coalition.
*Thanks, Ray Bradbury.