February 17, 2018

SFPL Faces A Host of Challenges

There’s money for the branches but not the New Main, and the library must do more to build public confidence

Some five years ago, the New Main Library of the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) was one of the nation’s most anticipated facilities. Hailed as the “library of the future,” it drew overflow crowds marveling at the circular atrium, grand stairways, and high-tech touches. Soon the building—more beautiful than functional—had become the poster child for lousy planning. In The New Yorker, author Nicholson Baker savaged the library for dumping books, hastily weeding its collections to prepare for the move from old building to new. Though SFPL challenged Baker’s estimates of the number of discards, an essential charge—that the new library couldn’t accommodate the collection—was undisputed. Well before the American Library Association (ALA) annual conference in 1997 spotlighted SFPL, City Librarian Ken Dowlin was forced to resign, as library budget deficits drew the ire of Mayor Willie Brown.

A new acting city librarian, retired Berkeley Public Library Director Regina Minudri, began to right the ship in 1997. After Minudri suffered a stroke in 1998, her recently hired deputy, Susan Hildreth, took the helm. Last year Hildreth—previously a planning consultant for the California State Library—won the city’s Public Management Excellence Award. She helped steer broad public approval of a $106 million bond issue to rehabilitate the system’s long-neglected branches. Also, she began to face the problems at the New Main, as a stringent Post-Occupancy Evaluation (POE) detailed numerous deficiencies and possible fixes at the building, even as it soft-pedaled blame. The POE, spurred by a 1997 mayoral audit, was released in January 2000.

Taking on the job

Hildreth’s on-the-job experience, not to mention her attendant familiarity with San Francisco’s contentious politics, led the library commission to bypass a national search and, in March of this year, appoint her city librarian.

Says Hildreth of Minudri, “Her time here was far too short for the institution and for me personally.” Still, she adds, “I think that the staff and commission have confidence in me because I responded not just with stewardship but by moving forward.”

Asked to rank her priorities, Hildreth places the branches first: “I think it’s very important to continue going forth with modifications to the Main, but I think the voters have shown they want the branch bond implemented.” Underlying that is the painful recognition that, however much the voters also wanted a fully functional New Main, neither they nor city officials—not to mention library donors—will quickly fund the $17 million needed for renovation. (The upcoming budget contains $2.9 million for such work.)

Beyond buildings

Yet much remains to be done besides major building renovations. SFPL has begun an important assessment of its collection, which should guide future spending and space needs. Also, it must raise its relatively low spending on materials (some nine percent of the budget), has begun to look for a new integrated library system (which would add foreign languages, among other features), and must increase its computer workstations (currently a well-used 181 systemwide, half from Gates Foundation grants).

Hildreth, like Minudri, has been praised for being more accessible than Dowlin. “What has improved is our ability to talk with the administration,” says Cathy Bremer, chief steward of the Librarians’ Guild, Service Employees Union, Local 790. After a majority of branch staff recently signed a petition against reorganization, Hildreth took the un-Dowlinesque step of going out to branch meetings.

Still, Hildreth faces challenges on several fronts. Library administrators have clashed with the union on several issues, from the role of the Friends & Foundation to a new fine and fee schedule. A few local activists remain fiercely skeptical of SFPL, decrying corporate influence and broken promises. Their views are reflected in some community newspapers and by recently elected members of the city Board of Supervisors.

Meanwhile, Hildreth and others at the library have been attending focus groups, from seniors to teens. “It’s very hard to generalize, but most want the library to be both high touch and high tech,” she says, citing requests for books, online access, programs, and more.

The not–so–New Main

Hildreth remains enthusiastic about the New Main, citing the influx of 5000 visitors a day, double that of its predecessor and contributing to SFPL’s high use rate (third among large libraries nationally). “I don’t think the situation is as negative as depicted in the press or even in parts of the POE,” she maintains.

Still, that report is stark, saying that user dissatisfaction—including unavailability of material, waiting at service desks, and confusion in using services—increases with frequency of visits and contributes to lowered circulation. Anyone coming to the building soon senses that something is wrong. The grand second floor entrance on Larkin Street within the Civic Center complex is used far less than a smaller first floor entry on Grove Street, just steps from busy Market Street and public transportation.

After entering that de facto main entrance on Grove Street, visitors see a black and yellow hazard strip that has been affixed to one of two steps. The reason? Newcomers craning their heads at the library’s atrium suffered too many falls.

The POE—authored by architect Cynthia Ripley along with two librarian consultants, including Los Angeles Public Library Director Susan Kent—strongly criticized SFPL’s signage and placement of service desks. Though plans for an improved signage system are months away, with funding beyond that, the library has taken some interim steps, with striking changes. In the first floor atrium, easy-to-read black vinyl letters indicate basic information like “New Books” and “Audio/Video” while a hard-to-read original sign on greenish embossed glass declares “Browsing Collection,” supplemented by a list of four donors.

That heavily used collection, however, is small, and the library desperately needs additional space for books and ultimately must use Brooks Hall, an adjacent underground storage space, to house part of its collections. The POE recommended that several departments be moved offsite, including the first floor technical services department, which currently occupies 15,000 square feet. That space could accommodate new books and much of the fiction collection.

While Hildreth told LJ
in May that she hoped to announce a plan for the first floor by July, she acknowledged that process hinges on when a new chief of Main is named; the previous chief, Ned Himmel, left earlier this year to be assistant city librarian in San José.

Friends & Foundation

Even the New Main’s sunny, seemingly innocuous used-book store, run by the SFPL Friends & Foundation (F&F), is an object of controversy. The Book Bay occupies a nook just inside the Grove Street entrance that formerly contained lockers used for drug deals and space for free publications, which Hildreth terms “a bit unsightly.” To administrators, it’s a handy use of space; to the F&F, it’s the only place a bookstore could fit; to union leaders, it reflects a public library’s genuflection to the F&F. The groups combined in 1999, as both had competed for funders; the F&F now has an $18 million endowment.

That criticism is rooted in the foundation’s significant fundraising for the New Main ($30 million, plus $5.3 million from “affinity groups”), resulting in much library signage acknowledging funders, which the union and activists consider to be too prominent. The union has also filed a grievance, so far denied, opposing the F&F’s hiring of staff to both raise funds and organize the well-attended programs in two of the library’s “affinity centers,” the Wallace Stegner Environmental Center and the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center.

F&F Executive Director Chuck Forrester, who aims to raise $15 million for the branches, says he’s taken aback by the criticism: “We’re a group of citizens who really love the library.” He recognizes concerns about corporate naming but says such signage is “one of the realities of doing business.” Still, Library Commissioner Carol Steiman acknowledges that the commission should do more in the future to ensure less obtrusive naming.

The Board of Supervisors has yet to approve a controversial Memorandum of Understanding between the library and the F&F, pending since November. Union and civic critics, citing a POE recommendation, would like the F&F to vacate its sixth-floor offices before the 2004 date in the memorandum. Says Hildreth, “You might say we were more generous than needed, but we were trying to accommodate their needs and the library’s needs.” The issue may become moot, as declining rental costs should make local office space more attractive.

Where does the money go?

With a $51.5 million budget for FY01–02, SFPL is one of the better-funded libraries in the country, thanks to a 1994 ballot issue (Proposition E) that has since more than doubled spending, boosting hours and materials. SFPL is guaranteed a fixed percentage of the city’s general fund and property taxes, which should assure secure funding even as city revenues decline.

Spending on staff has risen steadily—64.6 percent since 1996–97, compared to a 20.8 percent rise in materials over the same period. Staff costs occupy 76.4 percent of the SFPL budget. Librarian salaries start at $45,000, among the highest in the country, though living costs in the city are very high, and SFPL, competing with dot-coms and other enterprises, has trouble filling openings.

Part of the disproportionate spending on staff, say union leaders, can be attributed to SFPL’s open hours. When Proposition E increased funding for books and hours, it required that the total of weekly system hours increase from 804 to 1,028; the library commission raised that to 1,172 hours.

Rebuilding the branches

Most of SFPL’s 26 branches need basic work. Of the 21 city-owned branches, 16 need upgrades to electrical, mechanical, and data systems; 15 need seismic upgrades. Most require disability access.

Four leased branches, most about 1500 square feet, will be replaced by new facilities three or four times their size, while one new neighborhood library will be built, and the Richmond branch will have a large addition. Activists grouse that the bond doesn’t increase space for books in the other buildings; Hildreth says space “will be given high priority” in the renovations, adding that “in the future, branch collections need to be kept current and fresh.” The library also will rely on recent census information to make sure branch collections remain relevant.

Only last year, the library opened its first branch in 30 years, in Ocean Bay, and the new building is a well-used oasis in a poor neighborhood. What can happen to the older branches is reflected in the 1915 Mission Branch, renovated three years ago. A grand interior staircase was removed for a new ground floor and seismic renovations, but the structure’s striking façade, clad in cream-colored terra cotta, and grand arched windows remain. This and six others are Carnegie branches, and local preservationists have begun to seek landmark status for them.

Hildreth has experience in major projects. As deputy city librarian, she chaired the California Library Association (CLA) Bond Act Task Force, backing a statewide library bond measure, Prop 14, which passed in November 1999. Hildreth, who has an MBA and an MLS, held management positions in several libraries and was treasurer of the CLA from 1995 to 2000.

Much scrutiny

The library is still working on a strategic plan, which will face a public hearing, likely this summer, before commission approval. While SFPL used the Public Library Association’s Planning for Results process, it was “strongly interpreted for San Francisco,” notes Hildreth, emphasizing among its goals diversity, lifelong learning, and the library’s role as a people’s university.

“I’ve never been in a community where citizens are quite as engaged,” Hildreth says, commenting on the library’s potential to contribute to an informed electorate, one of the goals. She could have been talking about the public and staff scrutiny the library faces.

Staff suspicion still resonates from unheeded warnings they offered regarding plans for the New Main. Also, a handful of activists attend every library commission meeting, ritually offering public comment on most agenda items, asserting the importance of increasing hours and books. Several initially supported the New Main but actively opposed the recent bond issue.

More effectively, along with union members concerned about outsourcing, the activists protested a new fine and fee plan that would have used a materials recovery firm that involved a collection agency as a last resort, after four contacts with borrowers.

To management and some staffers, the new plan resembled those adopted by many other libraries, including the nearby Oakland Public Library, which is represented by a local from the same umbrella union. To critics, the plan not only hinted at privatization but also was overkill. SFPL in the Dowlin era had cut the standard three overdue notices to one. The Board of Supervisors agreed, leading to a compromise: three notices from the library, no collection agency. Less controversially, the library also stopped charging for reserves and interlibrary loan requests.

In a changing place

Those walking to the Main Library will see that, despite the recent economic boom (and retraction) in San Francisco, the stretch of Market Street between Union Square and the Civic Center remains popular with the city’s large number of transients and street people. Many use the library to rest and change clothes as well as seek information. The library is considering adding an outreach worker to help steer such people to needed services.

Meanwhile, the Civic Center complex, which includes the recently renovated Beaux Arts City Hall among other buildings, has begun to revive. “The Old Main wasn’t the kind of destination that the New Main is,” says Hildreth, noting that the library continues to draw new visitors. When the Old Main reopens next year as the Asian Art Museum, more people will visit the area. Still, with some seedy streets nearby, SFPL resists holding events late in the evening for now.

But that’s one among many challenges. As Hildreth acknowledges, “This institution has gone through a tremendous amount of turmoil.” Adds Commissioner Steiman, “I don’t think you repair 20 years of neglect in five years, but we’re trying. It’s going to take time” to regain public confidence after problems at the New Main, she says, adding, “still, they voted for the [branch] bond.”

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