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Embattled library director leaving

 

Library Director Paula Simpson, the center of a firestorm regarding the future of Palo Alto's library system, unexpectedly announced Thursday she will quit in July to move to the Seattle area with her new husband.

During her brief tenure -- she started as Palo Alto's library director in March 2004 -- Simpson managed to engender both strong supporters and vociferous critics. But she told the Weekly the criticism did not play a role in her decision to leave.

"It’s really not about that at all,” Simpson said in an interview. "It’s really about having the courage to open a new chapter and see what comes along."

Her husband is Aaron Barnes, a retired astrophysicist. They married last year.

"I haven’t had a lot of time to devote to him in the last couple of years," she said.

Soon after Simpson started in Palo Alto, she conducted a six-month "listening tour," holding public meetings to assess the library. She then alienated some longtime library advocates by proposing to close down smaller branches to improve service at the larger, more popular sites, citing budget limitations.

Her statement that the city was running five libraries with the funds for only two-and-a-half became a rallying cry for those who wanted long-sought improvements to the overcrowded facilities.

More than 100 people attended the City Council meeting in December 2004 where her controversial recommendation -- which had also been floated by previous library directors -- was rejected by the council. Most residents spoke in opposition. The council asked the Library Advisory Commission to design a long-term plan for the libraries.

"Déjà vu," Simpson wrote the next morning on a listserv of local librarians. The e-mail's subject heading was "I'm alive."

From then on, even seemingly minor moves brought strong criticism from those who feared she was secretly trying to close branches. Some letter writers compared her to President George W. Bush.

"The pressure is enormous, but I sort of like that," Simpson said Thursday.

Simpson again faced heavy criticism last year when she proposed that the city move library offices from the Main Library to the less-used Downtown Library. At one meeting, Simpson faced such harsh criticism from the crowd that she finally suggested that those who disagree could complain to the city manager, "and maybe I'll get fired and that won't be all bad."

Next week, Simpson will unveil results of a public-opinion survey of library services that is designed to help the library commission plan the future. The commission is scheduled to present its plan to the City Council this spring.

Simpson said Thursday she doesn't personally care what direction the city ultimately takes.

"What matters is that it has the library that it wants," she said.

Although her tenure was highlighted by the fight over the branches, she also managed to improve services. She added self check-out machines, rearranged furniture to make more space and added new services, such as children's programs, digital books and increasing the library's online resources.

"I don’t know that I’ve really accomplished anything," she said. "I think I’ve allowed the staff to try new things."

Simpson, who spent seemingly endless hours responding to every person who wrote or e-mailed her, also had strong supporters.

Library Advisory Commission member Sanford Forte said he would miss her.

Simpson "was very successful in putting together coalitions that haven't yet existed prior to her coming here," Forte said.

In a statement, Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison said, "Paula has brought enormous energy and creativity to the job of Library Director. We will miss her courageous leadership and her staff will miss her unwavering support of them as they strive to deliver the top-quality service that Palo Alto expects."

— Bill D'Agostino

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