Palo Alto Weekly
Spectrum - January 9, 2008
Guest Opinion: Palo Alto's long debate on library branches is history — let's move ahead
by Alison Cormack
Welcome to 2008, the year that Palo Alto finally gets its libraries right. I am delighted that the final library proposal will soon come before the City Council.
Here's why I care so much about our libraries: I work on this issue every day because I love to read books and I think our libraries are embarrassing.
The schools, parks, trees and recreational services this city provides are superb. Our libraries should offer the same high-quality experience. Libraries are the most fundamental and democratic of our city services, serving toddlers, seniors, English-language learners, teens, book-club members, people who work at home and anyone who walks in the door.
In fact, over 2,000 people use our libraries every day of the year because they offer learning for life.
Here's what's going on at our five libraries:
* Children's Library, which was too small and dilapidated, has been expanded and updated.
* The College Terrace branch, which has seismic problems and needs an overall uplift, is scheduled to be fixed in 2008-2009.
* The Downtown Library needs more public space and to be refreshed.
* Main Library has poor lighting and ventilation and there is no space for studying or for community programs or events. It needs to be renovated and should offer study rooms and a modest-sized space for public events.
* Mitchell Park branch has a third of the space it needs for the use it gets and half the number of books. The adjacent community center is shabby and poorly arranged. The most cost-effective solution is to build a new, combined library and community center with enough space for books, people and programs.
Here's the truth about the branch debate: That ship has sailed. The Council isn't going to close branches and even if it did that wouldn't free up nearly enough money to fix our two primary libraries, Main and Mitchell.
Proposals to have one large library have failed. Requests to guarantee the branches' existence in perpetuity have failed. So that leaves us with a balanced, reasonable approach: fix the five libraries we have and use every day.
In my role as president of the Palo Alto Library Foundation, I am pleased to see the community discussion shifting from how many to what kind of libraries we have. If you have not visited Children's Library to see what a library with enough space for books and people, plenty of light and decent restrooms feels like, stop by 1276 Harriet Ave.
If you have not visited Mitchell Park library at 3700 Middlefield Road, you cannot understand the challenge we face there by reading this or any other article.
More than 1,000 people per day use Mitchell Park Library — it has the highest circulation of any of our five branches. Yet it is less than 10,000 square feet and was built 50 years ago. The visitors shift over the day with seniors and pre-schoolers predominating in the morning, older children arriving after school and everyone there in the evening.
While you're there, stop by the community center to see the dilapidated, uninspiring environment used by so many of our young people.
Then imagine the possibilities of a courtyard arrangement around the big oak tree. The new community center will be able to host weddings, plays, senior lunches, classes and civic functions just as the facility at Lucie Stern Community Center offers a wide variety of spaces in northern Palo Alto.
I get lots of questions about the libraries and current plans. As I try to answer them, I find it helps to know what people care about.
For the history buff, our library system is a centenarian. It was established with the help of major benefactors such as Andrew Carnegie and "Aunt Lucie" Stern and found community support when a bond passed to build our two primary libraries, Main and Mitchell, which both opened in 1958 — the year after Fairchild Semiconductor was founded.
Think about what has changed in the world and our city in those 50 years and realize that our libraries have stayed virtually the same.
Are you a numbers person? Our circulation in Palo Alto libraries has increased 45 percent since 2000. Libraries are NOT going away because of the Internet. Books and information are still inextricably linked and in high demand, right here in Silicon Valley.
Do you care about the environment? The new construction at Mitchell Park Library and Community Center is planned to be certified at the LEED silver level, meaning it will incorporate many "green" features such as porous concrete paving, a vegetated roof, photovoltaics and a ground-source heat pump in a building designed to harvest daylight and conserve water.
For those interested in the local political process, the current expansion/refurbishing plan is an issue we can all support. It's been studied by the Library Advisory Commission (LAC), worked on diligently by staff and architects, reinforced by the primary finding of the city auditor's report, and applauded by the Architecture Review Board. And, it is supported by all three library groups: the LAC, the Palo Alto Library Foundation and the Friends of the Palo Alto Library.
We are at a crossroads with a golden opportunity to achieve improvements across the city and across the generations. I am mindful that the school district, the Art Center, the Junior Museum & Zoo and other local entities face similar facilities issues. Much of Palo Alto was built in the 1950s and many of our civic buildings are long past their useful lives.
We must find the means to repair and replace these buildings that are the foundation of our high quality of life, as we have so successfully done with Children's Library and, a decade earlier, the Lucie Stern Community Center.
We are fortunate to live in a community that has the resources to make these necessary upgrades. I firmly believe that now is the time to get our libraries right for the next generation. I welcome your comments, questions and suggestions.
Alison Cormack is the new president of the Palo Alto Library Foundation. She is a 10-year resident of Palo Alto and lives in the Palo Verde neighborhood with her husband and two children. She can be e-mailed at email@example.com.
Posted by Anna,
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 13, 2008 at 6:39 pm
I'm never embarrassed making an honest error. I am embarrassed by the bad condition that Palo Alto's libraries are in, relative to the passion we have for libraries here, and the very high use that our library has. (you'll note that Mt. View has about 10,000 more citizens, but we use our library just as much - we're proud of stuff like that.)
Embarrassed? I'm *proud* to be a part of helping - just in this little forum - our citizens understand what's great about our library system, and why it need renewal, and what that renewal means to them, our schools, our children, our seniors, our incoming population of commuters (heavy users of our libraries), and so on.
btw, This is where I obtained those numbers; it appears that there is a disconnect between Mt. View's Library Foundation, and the library.
the references were sent to me by a friend in Mt. View who says she envies our branch library system - go figure.
Incidentally, The Mt. View Library (a good library) is open 57 hours per week, at one location.
The Palo Alto library is open 177 hours throughout its branches, not including the 48 hours that Children's is open.
That's a huge point for accessibility.
The cost difference between Mt. View and PA is primarily in staffing, but I'll give you that one point, among many others that remain on the side of those who have good rationale for fixing our library, and maintaining our branch system.
Palo Alto wants to create a pleasing experience for its patrons, as Louise noted the following about the Mt. View Library: "And when I checked the reference section, Mountain View really came up short in areas I could easily compare to the resources in Palo Alto's Main library -- consumer info, world history, foreign language dictionaries. Worst of all, there was no one to help you should you have any questions."
Palo Alto is a special community; we try to differentiate ourselves with more and better community services, better schools, better opportunity for business, etc. etc. That's why we're repairing our library infrastructure, which has been the victim of embarrassing neglect.
Even more incidentally, in case you haven't read the latest poll (which indicate you're somewhat out of step with most Palo Altans), here it is:
Palo Altans CLEARLY want their branches, as repeated by Ms. Cormack, in her excellent GO.
Our Library distinguishes itself by serving patrons in ways that permit convenience, walkability, easy access for the disabled and seniors - including many other benefits.
So far your only point is pure comparative cost, based on incomplete data that *only* looks at *cost*.
What about benefits? Yours is very incomplete financial diligence, as every public or private enterprise spreadsheet I've ever seen does show the benefit side of the ledger.
Frankly, that's something to be embarrassed about, because it doesn't involve unit errors; rather, it indicates a mind set that screams "poverty" when approaching the necessities of life.
This community didn't become the stellar community that it is by thinking poor. We tackle problems; we lead; we're a magnet community - and we're darned proud of that - for our, and our children's sake.
That said, Palo Alto's library multiplier - in terms of community payback for library investment - for Library services is at least TWICE Mt. View's, and probably more, based on the 23 municipal studies on public library ROI, stated above.
Look at the studies, and please do your own study of public library payback to refute the findings of these 23 studies - I'm open to admitting error. I assume you are, as well.
Another thing, no Palo Altan should get caught in the trap of deferring to a poverty striken bean countering philosphy when it comes to vital public services like libraries, public safety, etc. etc.
Why? Because so MUCH of community service, like a public library, is *qualitative* in nature.
Being able to walk to a library with your child on a Saturday morning for a story time reading; being able to saunter over, as a retired senior citizen - on a Tuesday afternoon, to read a newspaper and mingle with neighbors; being able to access library services in almost any part of town, as one runs errands - instead of having to make special trips (lower carbon footprint, anyone? - that's worth $$$); enabling the many workers who drive to our city (we have 10's of thousands; to use a library that's close to their place of employment (more lowering of carbon footprint, btw); the ability to walk to community evenings in the evening, at one's neighborhood library; the ability of one's children to gather and use the library close to school, and home; the ability of branch library staff to help kids get on with the "homework help" system - thereby leveraging our citizen's investment in their schools (not to mention the PA Library's fantastic Teen Library program; how about the availability of small, local art and other exhibits created by local artists, and others;
Try putting a price tag on the above; you can - but Palo Altans won't buy your argument. Why? Because they want to invest in library services that add up to more than the sum of the little parts that some want to blow out of proportion - and to what end? To destroy a library system that is much loved and WANTED by most Palo Altans?
I think you need to reconfigure your demographic research; go talk to the majority of Palo Altans - the 62+% who woted for the last bond. It's going to be higher this time, by at least 7% points.
In all, Palo Alto's library delivers a better library *experience* than most others - especially when considers the above factors. Once we get Mitchell rebuilt, and the rest of the system up to par, we will have a library system that's paying back a positive ROI to the community (for tax dollars expended)