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November 24, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Library commission shoots for the moon Library commission shoots for the moon (November 24, 2004)

Group votes to support new, state-of-the-art library and keep branches open

by Bill D'Agostino

If there's a tough decision facing advocates of Palo Alto's library system -- whether to close beloved branches to staff a full-service library -- it wasn't apparent at last week's meeting of the Library Advisory Commission.

Hoping to move the dialogue away from that either/or debate, the seven-member panel unanimously voted to recommend an ambitious long-term vision -- one that builds the marvelous new facility but doesn't shut down any of the five current branches.

How such a plan could be funded was not discussed on Thursday night, and the fact the city is facing a $5 million-plus deficit next year was only briefly mentioned. The commission's dream -- one might call it either brave or starry-eyed -- will be aired on Dec. 13, when the City Council is scheduled to chart a course for the future of Palo Alto's libraries.

Just keeping all five branches adequately staffed next year would cost an estimated $850,000, according to a recent analysis. But Councilwoman Hillary Freeman, the commission's liaison, still sounded ready to support the group's expansive vision.

"You've waited your turn valiantly and patiently," Freeman told them, referring to past years when the commission's ideas to maintain library services were ignored.

Even though commissioners were in agreement that they wanted to keep all the branches open, some argued they might change the functions of some facilities -- becoming primarily a place to pick up or drop off books, for instance -- to save money.

"We need to be creative," commission Chair Lenore Jones said.

The commission also asked for the library to become one of the city's "Top Five Priorities," a distinction that would allow city administrators to spend more time tending to the libraries. (The current Top Five Priorities are alleviating traffic, building affordable housing, maintaining infrastructure, stabilizing city finances, and making smart land use decisions.)

During a recent City Council meeting, Library Director Paula Simpson, who recently completed a six-month "listening tour," argued that the current library system's funding is unsustainable and unsatisfactory. Palo Alto is running five branches with the funds other cities use to run two-and-a-half, she said. As a result, she said, the buildings are crammed, the collection is suffering, the librarians are overworked and the city is failing to provide numerous programs.

Simpson laid out several options for the future. She noted the libraries could get additional funding for multiple branches by sharing space with other agencies or by passing a parcel tax. But that latter possibility seemed less realistic this month, as the school district failed -- for the first time in many years -- to pass such a tax, Measure I on the Nov. 2 ballot.

The library director's recommended vision is to build a new full-service, environmentally-friendly library near California Avenue and close two of the existing branches.

That idea has divided the community. Some who are unsatisfied with the current libraries have applauded it.

Maryanne Welton, a project manager who lives in the Barron Park Neighborhood, said the city has been putting Band-aids on a critical situation.

"There needs to be leadership, especially from the city and the council. Someone, hopefully more than one person, needs to take the hard road. You can't make everyone happy."

Running multiple libraries, plus building a larger one, as the commission recommended, would be too redundant, Welton argued.

"I find it difficult to support a system with that many branches unless new funding is identified," she said.

Fellow Barron Park resident Sue Luttner Koonen argued the other side of the debate. She said the branches help maintain Palo Alto's small-town feel, and allow people to easily travel to their libraries. When Terman Park -- a sixth branch that was closed in 2002 to save money -- was open in her neighborhood, she and her two sons would often visit.

"Our lives were enriched by having a library within biking distance," Koonen said. She also didn't like the idea of the city's main library being near a business district.

"Even though it would be closer to me, who wants to bicycle to California Avenue?"

The mere mention of closing branches has caused many long-time residents to campaign to keep all of them open, even at the expense of a library that could provide a reading room, a technology center or other programs currently unavailable. Such pressure was at least one reason why the commission didn't attempt to choose a more pragmatic recommendation.

"We have to be aware of which way the political winds are blowing," Commissioner Tom Wyman said.

The commission was also eager to shed its image as a group that "likes to close libraries."

In 2002, the commission, attempting to live with a declining city budget, recommended closing the Downtown Library branch to give some relief to librarians. It was a heart-wrenching call for the group, but was immediately opposed by the Friends of the Palo Alto Library and ultimately shot down.

"We all desire to have as much library service in the City of Palo Alto as we can manage," Vice Chair Sandra Hirsh said, hoping to clarify the point.

Commissioner Sanford Forte took the idea one step further, and asked: "Can we make a motion to that effect so the press can report on it?"

No such motion was made, unless you count the long-term vision.

Staff Writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at bdagostino@paweekly.com.


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