Palo Alto Library Foundation heads toward final chapter

After raising $4.5 million for local libraries, fundraising group plans to dissolve

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."

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10 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 27, 2015 at 9:43 am

Still no improvements in the limited hours.

Still no discussion about the return of the drive thru book returns. Still no discussion about 5 minute parking for those of us who just want to pick up a book and leave as quickly as possible.

Still no description of what constitutes a car share, car pool parking space.

Electric charging points for cars which are more likely to be used by non Palo Alto residents rather than library users. Anyone with an electric vehicle who lives in Palo Alto is not likely to use these spots, they will drive home and charge overnight. Unless of course our librarians all have electric vehicles and use them while they are at work.

Still no improvements in the Mitchell Park lot which is used as a short cut by drivers to avoid the Meadow/Middlefield intersection.

Still no creation of a bike path for all those bikes on their way to Mitchell Park, JLS, Fairmeadow and Hoover. Bikes seem to go wherever they want and pedestrians and bikes mixing together with cars looking for a space to park is a recipe for accidents waiting to happen.

3 people like this
Posted by Susan
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 1, 2015 at 2:18 pm

This Foundation is so impressive, and I am grateful for everything it has done. It not only recognized a real need In our community, but mobilized a team of dedicated people over a span of 14 years, set and achieved two ambitious goals in getting a bond measure passed and raising over $4 million in a difficult economy, then realized when it was time to move on and is doing so in a very gracious way. This organization did absolutely everything right, and I am looking forward to seeing what areas in our community the key players turn their attention to next. They will succeed and, thanks to them, so will we.

5 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 1, 2015 at 2:39 pm

It was impressive that the Foundation raised $4,000,000 but too bad that the city wasted another $26,000,000 in cost-overuns on Mitchell.

I miss the paperback racks in the library and the ability to donate my used paperbacks.

I miss the drive-through drop-offs at both libraries, esp. after watching some poor guy laboriously get his chair out of his car.

I'm still waiting for the city to replace the No Stopping sign at Mitchell in what the librarian said months ago was supposed to be the 5-minute spots in the cutout in front of the library.

The librarian also said months ago that they were going to restripe the Mitchell Park lot to reduce the number of Hybrid Car Pool, regular Car Pool and handicapped spots that are usually empty and make it impossible for the rest of us to park.

7 people like this
Posted by Kevin
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 1, 2015 at 3:39 pm


Palo Alto should have one major library, a real 21st century jewel. Instead, we get these five mediocre branches. The so-called friends of libraries in Palo Alto succeeded in firing the one library head who understood the need to consolidate. She told the truth, and then she was toast.

It is a sad day for PA libraries, because we are now stuck with mediocrity, and we wasted an enormous amount of money on this fantasy.

7 people like this
Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 1, 2015 at 3:52 pm

I agree with Kevin - it is truly unfortunate that this group forced us to keep 5 libraries. If the were truly "entrepreneurial bibliophiles" they would have closed Downtown and College Terrace. Instead of one or two great libraries that are open lots of hours, we have five that are closed at random times. And are certainly not open hours that serve the working families or students who would like to study in the evenings.

Not to mention that combining the DT library lot with the current Police station would have provided enough land for a new public safety building (and yes, I realize Forest goes between the buildings, it could have been closed.

10 people like this
Posted by Palo Altan
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 1, 2015 at 6:13 pm

Can the Mitchell Park and Rinconada libraries at least have stable hours, like 9AM-9PM, Monday-Saturday? All the library hours are so difficult to remember and Mitchell and Rinconada close so early at 8:00. The added hour helps students and employed residents. There have been numerous times I have gone to the smaller libraries, only to find them closed - all the libraries have different hours - we don't have photographic memories.

Like this comment
Posted by JAH
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 1, 2015 at 9:01 pm

I took my 3 year old daughter to the *new* Mitchell Park library over the weekend and the book selection was really bad - meaning, there were very few books for toddlers. Not sure if most books are taken out because this is such a popular hub (it was packed with kids and adults) or they haven't put many kids books on the shelves. We had to go back the children's library (near Rinconada Park) - which has a HUGE selection.

1 person likes this
Posted by Chao
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 1, 2015 at 9:29 pm

Thank you Palo Alto Library Foundation! It's rare to see a non-profit succeed in a lofty mission and even rare to see one dissolve itself at the height of its triumph (instead of clinging on and finding new reasons to exist)

1 person likes this
Posted by Utter Waste
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 2, 2015 at 10:29 am

The tens of millions of dollars of investment in buildings is a monument to a past where large physical spaces were needed to store books. As many have mentioned the many different branches without any consolidation, the absurd working hours and the lack of investment in an EBook infrastructure that every resident of Palo Alto would have access to on their phone or smart device are lost opportunities. What we have instead is much more of the status quo except with grand buildings that cost a packet to build and will cost a mountain to maintain over the life of the structures.

1 person likes this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 2, 2015 at 10:39 am

I think the foundation did an effective job in getting the libraries rebuilt/remodeled; and they've become more flexible structures acting as both libraries and community centers.

However, what's been lacking are the hours that these buildings are open; with the limited hours, it's like buying a Mercedes, but only having enough money to put a gallon of gas in the tank. So we can admire the buildings from the outside, but the benefits we are getting are small compared to the cost because of the number of hours the libary are open.

2 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 2, 2015 at 10:40 am

Re ebook investment and deamnd, compare the library reserves for an title in the various media and you'll find the eBooks are readily available for checkout while the hard copy books have waiting long waiting lists.

1 person likes this
Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 2, 2015 at 10:52 am

Part of the reason for restricted hours is the sheer number of libraries that need to be staffed. They need to spread their staffing $$ over a lot of buildings!

Like this comment
Posted by Brad Eggleston
a resident of another community
on Mar 2, 2015 at 1:58 pm

I am an Assistant Director of Public Works for Palo Alto and I manage the City's Capital Improvement Program. I noted that one of the postings above mistakenly stated that the Mitchell Park Library and Community Center had large cost overruns and wanted to provide the latest information now that the project has been completed. The Measure N Library bond measure authorization passed by the voters in 2008 was for $76 million to complete the Mitchell Park, Downtown, and Main (now Rinconada) projects. The initial bond election estimate for the Mitchell Park project was $50 million. That estimate was reduced to $49 million once some of the design work was done. Now that the project is complete, the final projected cost of the Mitchell Park Library and Community Center is $45 million. The City is projecting that the final cost of all three projects will be approximately $72 million. While it was unfortunate that completion of the Mitchell Park Library and Community Center was delayed as long as it was, in the end both the Mitchell Park project and the bond measure projects as a whole were completed well under their budgets.

Like this comment
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 2, 2015 at 7:58 pm

Brad, I apologize that I was wrong about the libraries being over-budget.

4 people like this
Posted by Alex
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 3, 2015 at 2:32 am

Many, many thanks to the people at the Library Foundation for doing the enormous job of fundraising and supporting this city and its libraries. A fantastic group of dedicated people, who proved that we can still mobilize our city to get something done. It's a pleasure to have libraries that are now on par with Mountain View and other nearby cities.

While I'm a one, not many, library person, that choice was not made by the library, or the library foundation, but by Palo Alto residents themselves, who complained loud and long whenever a library was considered for closing - ask College Terrace why its branch still exists and their residents will tell you, "don't close it - it is in my backyard."

One person above is alluding to the "Friends of the Library" which is NOT the same organization or people as the Library Foundation. In those days, a decade ago, when the "Friends" was a politically active group - they weren't so friendly and did some damage to our library system. Because of the political leadership of the "Friends" back then - we lost a great library director, Paula Simpson, who courageously started and led the whole renovation discussion. Thank goodness there was the Library Foundation group, who rose above the petty, raised money and got us renovated libraries.

Thank you so much Foundation folks for all you've done.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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