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June 6, 2003


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 southern California.

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 is now.

"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 his class."

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 knowledge."

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.