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By Jay Thorwaldson

On Deadline Blog: Palo Alto Main -- Will it be a main library by any other name?

Uploaded: Sep 10, 2013

The firestorm that has flared up over the possible renaming of the Palo Alto Main Library is beginning to rival some of the forest fires ravaging parts of California and the West, and there is no sign of any significant containment.

It's producing a lot of smoke as well as heat, according to emails and Town Square online-forum entries.

But the core issue isn't what the Palo Alto Main Library is named, although that could be a fight in itself, one supposes. The issue is the credibility of the city staff in charge of the sweeping redesign of the Main and other libraries. Most notable is the major redesign and expansion of the Mitchell Park Library and Community Center. Huge delays and cost overruns of the Mitchell Park rebuilding/expansion project have created an equally huge credibility factor.

Long overdue and over-budget, that complex will be a striking addition to the city's library roster. People will, ahem, need to check it out for themselves to see if the modernistic design is as horrible as some debate contributors maintain or if it's a sleek modern facility worthy of Palo Alto's next century or so.

It also seems there's more than a touch of irony in that libraries -- and their stock in trade, books -- are center stage in an era of online communications, digital books and enough Internet chatter to distract the ancient language gods from their jobs of running the world.

But so far library use is not just holding steady but growing, in Palo Alto at least, according to reports. Books still are popular, but other uses -- such as study and socializing centers for students after school, and places for older persons to hang out.

Years back, Weekly reporter Bill D'Agostino spent a day at the old Mitchell Park Library and noted that by midafternoon the older-person population drifted away to be supplanted by an invasion of high-energy teenagers.

Similarly, the Main Library renovation of the 1958 Main Library building will include a 4,000-square-foot addition to house four group-study rooms and a teen center. It will have an upgraded electrical system to accommodate residents' computer needs.

So libraries, as they long have, will be serving an after-school refuge in a world of two-worker households, books or no, and as a place-to-go refuge for older persons with retirement time on their hands. This drop-in-center use echoes findings of a series of focus groups in the 1990s. The groups found that people wanted primary and branch libraries to be places to meet with friends and relax.

Also, as usual, the fear of losing something, such as traditional classic books, fuels much of the heat of the debate, sometimes raging hotter than the flames of any totalitarian or religious book-burning of times past. The online exchanges, fraught with insults aimed at city staff and library supporters, allege incompetence and even willful deception about the future of Main, as it has been called for the past half century plus five years.

"We drank the kool aid served up a few years ago ,as provided by FOPAL," one critic went to far as to assert, referring to Friends of the Palo Alto Library -- ignoring the trade-mark capitalization of the flavored drink associated with the mass poisoning at a cult location, Jamestown. This should go down in history perhaps as one of the greatest bad-taste overstatements of our time.

There have been attempts to calm things down, such as a Guest Opinion last February by Alison Cormack -- who led a successful $76-million library-bond campaign in 2008 -- in the Weekly this year: http://www.paloaltoonline.com/weekly/story.php?story_id=18492. Cormack won a Tall Tree Award for outstanding citizen for accomplishing the "impossible" bond approval of about 70 percent, following disastrous earlier attempts a half dozen years before.

Cormack cites details of what went wrong with Mitchell, some steps taken to avoid mistakes on Main, and how the costs were shaping up for all the library construction. She also announced success of a $4 million fundraising campaign to furnish and equip the revamped libraries.

"Let's also review the expenses," she wrote. "The 2008 bond authorized up to $76 million. Downtown came in $1 million under budget, Mitchell Park is projected to be $4.7 million under budget, and Main is projected to be $2.6 million over budget, due to changes in the landscaped and parking area and the need to replace, not repair, the roof.

"So, in total, the projects should be completed for less than what was approved."

The column and extensive coverage stage by stage by reporter Gennady Sheyner are worth reviewing: A search at www.PaloAltoOnline.com will be beneficial for anyone who wants to chime in intelligently on the topic.

Teenagers aren't the only ones who might benefit from doing some homework before raising their hands and voices to say something.

Note: Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a cc: to jaythor@well.com. He also writes regular print columns for the Weekly.