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Making Book on the Library

San Francisco’s New City Librarian

By Sue Cauthen

San Francisco's new library chief likes books. Luis Herrera also likes the public. That's what he said yesterday at Mayor Gavin Newsom's press conference to introduce him as the new city librarian. 

"This job is a partnership," Herrera said. "I want to work with the community to empower the community." He comes to the job after a decade managing Pasadena's 10 libraries.

His new job is replete with challenges, as San Francisco Public Library has developed a not entirely undeserved reputation for ignoring the public will in the rush to embrace high-tech processes.

Librarians queried by the Call expressed relief that the seven-month search for a leader is over and reiterated their support for a city librarian who will bring a fresh approach to the problems of running the 27-library system. "Books are important" Herrera said. In Pasadena, he worked hard to balance literature with technology, a high-wire act for every 21st-century library.

Inside and outside SFPL, there has been some dismay at former library administrations' steps to diminish the number of books in the neighborhood branches to make room for new computers, meeting rooms, and related "gathering places." The move to turn libraries into community centers with books concerns many librarians as well as the public.

It's too early to tell, but the Library Commission appeared to have a new focus on reading and literacy. "The central mission of the library," said President Charles Higueras, is “love of literature and (addressing) the need for literacy and the public's desire for lifelong learning. There is also an 'urban agenda,' which accommodates immigrants and latchkey kids," especially those with low incomes.  Insiders noted that the commission president previously extolled the benefits of high tech, to the exclusion of so-called high touch.

As San Francisco city librarian, Luis Herrera will put his stamp on several other controversial issues facing SFPL. Introduction of radio frequency chips, or RFID, to track books is in the new budget, an item that has consistently produced controversy. Another sore spot is a plan to oust a childcare center from the Bernal Heights library. The proposal has provoked community outrage and heated testimony at Library Commission meetings from dozens of concerned citizens, including School Board president Eric Mar. The plan comes up for a vote at the Commission February 17.

Also on SFPL's agenda  is the $109 million Main Library, which is still needs around $28 million worth of work. Several million are budgeted for improvements in the next fiscal year. The library's most capital-intensive project is the $106 million branch improvement program, which is now five years from scheduled completion. On tap is the construction of five new branches and renovation of 19 others. Delays have caused massive price escalation mitigated somewhat by nearly $10 million in State funds  to advance the program.    

The Board of Supervisors new Citizens Advisory Committee for the library has ruffled some feathers among the SFPL's upper echelon. However, both Herrera and the new head of the powerful Friends of the Library, Donna Bero, have expressed a willingness to work with the CAC.

Mayor Newsom noted that city librarian Herrera is taking over a system with 2.3 million books that served 6.8 million visitors last year. Thanks to a property tax set-aside, the library is relatively wealthy, with a $58 million budget that guarantees there will be no layoffs or service cuts in fiscal 2005-2006. "When it comes to libraries," Newsom said, "the city puts its money where its passions are."