When a small group of entrepreneurial bibliophiles met in 2001 to discuss ways to fix up Palo Alto's library system, the list of needed improvements was long and daunting.
Most of the libraries were 30 or 40 years old and didn't have study rooms, program areas or even air conditioning. Susie Thom, current president of the Palo Alto Library Foundation, recalled that libraries had to be closed when the temperature reached the mid-90s because officials didn't think they were safe.
To some extent, the sad conditions of the city's five libraries at the time made the Foundation's sales pitch to the community relatively straightforward. As Thom put it, "We had a good story to tell." The story involved bringing the library system into the 21st century, and the group's mission was to "spearhead fundraising campaigns to support a modern, dynamic library system that meets the needs of everyone in our city."
Fourteen years, 1,973 donors and $4.5 million later, that mission is accomplished and the story of the Palo Alto Library Foundation is heading toward its final chapter. All five of the city's library branches have undergone extensive renovations since the Foundation launched. All now feature study rooms, proper mechanical equipment and the latest technology and furnishings. The Downtown Library was the first to go through a bond-funded makeover, reopening to the public in July 2011 (the Foundation contributed $275,000 to furnishing the branch). The city's flagship branch, the Mitchell Park Library and Community Center, opened last fall with a big community celebration after two years of frustrating construction delays. And on this past Valentine's Day, the branch formerly known as the Main Library opened up with a new wing, renovated rooms and a new name: the Rinconada Library. For the Foundation, which had a hand in each branch renovation except for the College Terrace Library's, this was a milestone to celebrate.
The celebration, however, also marks the last hurrah for the citizens group. With its goals now met, the Palo Alto Library Foundation is preparing to dissolve. Its last meeting will be on June 30, Foundation officials told the Weekly.
"As we looked at the library system as it is today, and as we looked at our mission statement, we concluded that we have met our mission," said Thom, who joined the foundation in 2008.
The group's role in getting the new libraries up and running is hard to overstate. While the bond paid for design and construction costs, a library isn't very useful without books, computers or places to sit. The Foundation decided to fund these improvements and over the years has succeeded in raising millions of dollars to stock the new shelves and computer labs. Thom said the pitch was made the old-fashioned way, through many one-on-one meetings with potential donors. Contributions ranged from $5 to $1.5 million, with the latter coming from the Morgan Family Foundation for the establishment of Kids Place, a children's area on the first floor of the Mitchell Park branch.
The group also received more than $500,000 from a group of more than 30 Google employees who live in Palo Alto and who helped the city create the Ventura Technology Learning Center, a computer lab on the second floor of Mitchell Park. Another big gift came from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, which contributed $250,000 in the economically funky days of 2010.
Much of the balance, however, came from residents and fellow book lovers -- the same people who defied the Great Recession and passed Measure N in 2008 (the measure received 69 percent support), spurring the recent library renaissance.
"I look at the libraries as a gift from the community to the community," said Thom, who led the fundraising effort with a group that also included as its leaders Alison Cormack and former Mayor Bern Beecham. "I think it's really important that the community stepped up and was willing to provide the funds, both through passage of Measure N and through their donations to the Library Foundation."
The foundation's success did not go unrecognized. In 2011, when Beecham presented to the City Council a $1.9 million check for the new Mitchell Park Library, then-Mayor Sid Espinosa called it a "historic moment in Palo Alto." The check was a result of contributions from more than 800 people in the Palo Alto community.
The Mitchell Park project didn't go as smoothly as residents had hoped, due to a protracted feud between the city and its primary contractor, Flintco Pacific. In January 2014, the city fired Flintco and hired another firm, Big D Pacific Builders, to finish the job. Thom said the delays were "a little painful for everyone in the community, but it was worth the wait." She noted that in the 11 weeks since the branch opened, the library system has issued 2,566 new library cards. And the three renovated libraries now include, collectively, 10 study rooms, three community rooms and a technology lab.
Though all the libraries are now up and running, the foundation's work isn't completely finished. Thom noted that the new libraries will require further funding for staffing and operational expenses. To that effect, the group is making sure that its postscript is a happy one. Sometime in the late spring or early summer, Thom said, the Foundation will present to the city its parting gift: a $300,000 check for "any needs that come up."