Guest Opinion: Now we can just enjoy our libraries


Ten years ago, all I wanted was to walk into the library, pick out a book, then sit down and read it. But there was a waiting list for popular classics like Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," and there were just a few dilapidated chairs that were never available. Another mom at Palo Verde suggested I join the Palo Alto Library Foundation board, and I readily agreed.

Nine years ago, we presented a petition with more than 1,000 paper and electronic signatures to then-Mayor Judy Kleinberg, asking that Mitchell Park Library be rebuilt. She accepted it gracefully but suggested that my elementary school kids might be in college before Palo Alto solved its library problem.

Eight years ago, a team of six met every week, and a team of 20 met every month, to execute a campaign that could win. And if we lost, it wasn't going to be because we hadn't sent mailers, installed lawn signs, walked precincts and presented at neighborhood events.

Today, we have five vibrant libraries filled with books, DVDs, computers, conference rooms and lots of people who have come to read, learn and work together. And I am happy to report that both my kids are high school students at Gunn, so we beat the mayor's prediction!

During this decade, I have been deeply grateful for those who believed in this effort and repeatedly gave their time and money to make it happen. Dozens of Palo Altans worked on the team, and thousands of people signed petitions, endorsed the campaign and displayed lawn signs. And 21,894 people voted yes on Measure N in 2008.

But the $76 million bond measure paid only for the design and construction of the buildings, not for the $4 million of furniture, books, ebooks and computers we needed to bring the libraries into the 21st century. So, more than a thousand people made private donations to the Palo Alto Library Foundation to fund modern furniture, thousands of books, and dozens of laptops and desktops.

Years ago, a friend mentioned to me that the construction of the Mitchell Park Library coincided with the time that my kids were attending JLS Middle School so they wouldn't get to use it. I replied that I wasn't doing this for my kids. I was doing it for everyone's kids.

Today, I am incredibly happy to see families walking in and out of these libraries, enjoying the great facilities and speaking a wide range of languages. On weekends, I admit that I walk our dog past the library just so I can see how busy it is!

One under-appreciated part of this project is the new community center at Mitchell Park. It has already hosted city meetings, school district events and private parties; it will be the site of many classes, quinceañeras and bar mitzvah parties, and birthday and graduation celebrations.

Recently, one of our first volunteers was at Mitchell Park and ran into an old friend from when their kids were in preschool. After exclaiming over the wonderful building, the friend was eager to remind the volunteer that she had signed the petition in 2007 and felt that she had played a part in making this happen. She is absolutely right! So much of the focus has been on the leaders of this effort, but I believe our success was determined by the breadth of our followers.

I would be remiss not to take this moment to mention that there were disappointments along the way, including the occasional issue with the City Council, a few potential donors who declined to give anything and some truly hateful anonymous comments online. What worked well in these situations was to set aside our personal feelings and refocus on the greater good and long-term goal. We are all proud of being relentlessly positive, and it paid off.

Last week I dropped by Mitchell Park after work to pick up a book, then walked up the stairs and found a chair by the window. I read the first chapter of the book before heading home.

That's really all I ever wanted — and now it's available to everyone.

Alison Cormack has lived in Palo Alto since 1997. She chaired the Better Libraries for Palo Alto bond campaign in 2008, served as the president of the Palo Alto Library Foundation from 2007 to 2010, and received the Tall Tree award in 2012.

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10 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 13, 2015 at 7:46 am

Thank you to everyone who had a hand in the beautiful library restorations - I love going there. These are unique city centers that everyone can enjoy.

22 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 13, 2015 at 9:59 am

A couple of things.

I stood in line at the desk by the entrance to Mitchell Park to talk to the man at the computer. After he had helped a few people check books out it was my turn to ask a question and he told me to go upstairs and ask a librarian. He wasn't a librarian. I had waited ten minutes to talk to a non librarian. Why isn't there a librarian at the obvious place to ask a question?

Then the book I wanted to check out was missing. Why do we have missing books that the librarians can't find? Is this due to the move, a computer glitch or something else? I am wondering how long my book on hold which the system says is on the shelves at Mitchell Park will take to be found?

Now to get back to the basics. Why should I have to get out my car at 11.00pm to return a book? Is that safe? Why can't we have the drive thru book drops again?

Please improve the traffic flow through the Mitchell Park lot, it is not a short cut for drivers to get to Fairmeadow, JLS and Hoover. Also, please make bike paths so that cars backing out and elderly library patrons crossing the lot do not have to deal with child cyclists not watching for cars or pedestrians.

Please give us a better idea of who will use electric charging spots and carpools. Palo Alto residents will go home to charge their vehicles and will only use the spots to park, not to charge. Is a carpool a parent with a child?

Lastly, why can't we have a couple of 10 minute spots? I am rarely there long (only when I have to wait ten minutes to speak with a non librarian). Getting in and out as fast as possible is something that many people want to be able to do and designated spots for this will help the overall parking situation.

Thank you.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 13, 2015 at 4:48 pm

Why isn't this article on the front page?

17 people like this
Posted by Not impressed
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Mar 13, 2015 at 7:31 pm

A lot of self-congratulations there for an ugly building that was way behind schedule and way over budget.

I do not even go to PA libraries any longer. I find the libraries in neighboring cities much more unassuming and much more user friendly. Enough said.

4 people like this
Posted by C. Wilson George
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 14, 2015 at 12:32 pm

[Portion removed.] Ms. Cormac has never shown any understanding of how information technology, driven primarily by the private sector, has set a reformation in place that will equal that set in motion by Gutenberg centuries before. Today, it’s hard to believe that virtually every book in most public, and many private, libraries is not digitized and on-line for access any time of the day, every day of the year.

The idea of going to a library in which to read is so antiquated that it should be filed with other Paleolithic ideas. Reading materials are now available in formats for smartphones, tablets and devices with larger screen sizes. Most of this material is free. Just released items, such as popular novels, might cost a few dollars—but no matter what the cost of Kindle-formatted books available from Amazon, these costs are a lot less that the several hundred dollars of additional taxes that this behemoth of a building has imposed on most homeowners—most of whom are not library patrons.

While Alison Cormac, and her ilk, may be patting themselves on the back—they are responsible for a project that is an embarrassment to most Palo Altans who live and work in/around the Silicon Valley and understand what the Internet is bringing to the world—freedom from government control of our personal lives. [Portion removed.]

25 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 14, 2015 at 1:35 pm

The complaints of "Resident" and "C. Wilson George" provide interesting contrasts and yet commonalities. They contrast between someone who is highly critical of the new Mitchell library for imperfections and someone who thinks that the thousands of people enthusiastically enjoying the library are anachronisms or or myths. Sadly, what they hold in common is an inclination to focus their energies on hyper criticism rather than contribution. The fact that their critical perspectives represent opposite viewpoints speaks volumes. Many of us love the new libraries and thanks leaders like Alison for their contributions.

12 people like this
Posted by OPar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 14, 2015 at 3:23 pm

Mr. Wilson,

For someone so up on technology, you seem to be amazingly unaware of the research that shows we absorb information more readily from books than online. In Britain, there's been an upsurge in book sales because of this.

I hate reading anything longer than a news article online. Books rock and I can resell or give away the ones I no longer want. Also, no one can monitor what I'm reading and when I'm reading it. I don't need the latest version of whatever to read a book--it's right there in my hand and requires no advanced technology.

My only complaints about the libraries now that they're open is that Rinconada needs more books and, yes, there should be a drive-through drop-off--it's a pain to find parking when you just want drop something off.

8 people like this
Posted by Not impressed
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Mar 14, 2015 at 5:17 pm

@ Parent

What can I contribute now after the fact?

My contribution was this:

I voted against the library bonds because I knew what was coming: a boondoggle for contractors. Unnecessary waste and excess. And this is exactly what we got.

I actually liked the Mitchell Park library and community center that were razed to start from scratch. They were elegant buildings in an understated way and open on nature outside rather than with an ostentatious plant wall.

I would have loved to see a retrofit an expansion of those buildings. I am ready to bet that it would have been less expensive in the end than what we got.

However, in supposedly "green" Palo Alto, what we do is raze and start from scratch to build ostentatious and rather unsightly things. Then, we don't have the means to staff the libraries properly.

As to the future? For starters: close the smaller branch libraries and fully staff the larger ones. Here is a sound suggestion. But that is never going to happen.

Anyhow, I am happy going outside of Palo Alto for my books.

10 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 14, 2015 at 5:23 pm


There are some more things I could have said, instead I gave some constructive criticism. Teething troubles happen and things can get sorted and improved. I think this is the case here.

I also was against this library from the start. I would have preferred something very different but we never got a chance to give input, just yes or no. I know we needed to update what was there, but we had no choice.

Right, so now we have this library. Whether I like it or not is not really relevant. What is relevant is getting some teething problems sorted.

My constructive criticism is valid. Much better than someone who just offers empty praise.

8 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 14, 2015 at 6:12 pm

While I didn't support building all these new libraries, now that we have them, I will enjoy them. But I would enjoy them a lot more if their collections were better. It's a rare day when I don't have to search a different city's library catalog for a book because Palo Alto doesn't have it.

6 people like this
Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 14, 2015 at 6:22 pm

Have to agree about the collection being weak, on top of being spread across multiple locations. Still prefer Mountain View (always free) and Los Altos (free again come July), though now use Mitchell Park when they have the book (50/50 chance). On the plus side, the owls out front are quite nice and Ada's cafe is also nice.

2 people like this
Posted by pay attention
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 14, 2015 at 11:29 pm

C. Wilson George is also completely unacquainted with copyright law.

Short version: in most cases it's illegal to transpose a book to electronic form.

In many cases the publishers will make the electronic copy available for - no surprise here - more $. Thus giving some members of the community even more expenditures to complain about.

14 people like this
Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 15, 2015 at 12:01 am

It needs to be said, and I believe many in the Palo Alto community will echo this exact same sentiment, that the Mitchell Park exterior architecture facing Middlefield Road is simply not attractive, even plain ugly.

Was that the best we could do?

So let's temper our self congratulations here.

12 people like this
Posted by Barron Park Resident
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 15, 2015 at 12:04 am

Why is there a children's play area, with the noisiest possible play toys, in the new library?

Even upstairs, I was disturbed by the banging of the toys.

What Palo Alto Genius designed this?

What parent lets their kids disturb the entire place?

What happened to common sense?

4 people like this
Posted by danielle
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 15, 2015 at 2:22 am

I love the new library and use it every week. Thank you!

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 15, 2015 at 10:43 am

If you're looking for hardcopy tax forms, go to the Los Altos library.
They have CA 540 booklets with forms.
And Fed 1040, 1040A, 1040EZ forms (but no Fed instructions, due to Fed budget deficit).
Our own libraries had these forms in the old days.
Everyone is now expected to have printers or just file on-line. Or pay someone else.

@pay attention (or anyone), regarding copyright laws -- what's the law on making a hardcopy book available in a library? Can the library just buy it on Amazon and put it on the shelf? I really don't know, but I do know that I cannot personally subscribe to a professional journal and put it on a library shelf. There are "library rates" for that.

Like this comment
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 15, 2015 at 3:33 pm

SteveU is a registered user.

Re Mitchel Park Ugly

There were public meetings.
True, most things were already cast in concrete. We did get polled about colors and a tiny input on choice of materials. ("do you like this or this?")

I hated the dark or glare in the old Library aisles (like: the Science Fiction asile). The new one is great in that respect

9 people like this
Posted by Amazed
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 15, 2015 at 9:20 pm

I never cease to be amazed at the spiteful negativity of some of the people who comment in the Palo Alto Weekly.

Through the concerted effort of many many people, many of them volunteers, over many years, we now have great new libraries in Palo Alto, and the comments on this article are about how they have to get out of their car to return books, or how there are too many toys in the childrens area, or how the library is ugly. Blah blah blah - so smart, so astute, so discerning, everyone is so amazed.

[Portion removed.]

4 people like this
Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 15, 2015 at 9:53 pm

[Post removed.]

2 people like this
Posted by Love The New Library
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 16, 2015 at 11:26 am

I do love the new Mitchell Park library - it is a magnet for school kids after school which is wonderful. I was sad to see the old library torn down though, it had so much more charm. Alas, it was not big enough and did not enjoy nearly the volume of patrons as the new one.

With all appreciation to those that made it happen, as a frequent user and nearby neighbor I would like to chime in on future, possible improvements:

1) The entrance to the parking lot should be wider and include a sidewalk, possibly that winds around the ballfield side of the parking lot and into Mitchell Park. Like it or not, this IS a great route for kids to get to and from school at Fairmeadow, JLS, and Hoover, and a sidewalk wide enough to accommodate bikes and pedestrians so the congestion right in front of the library could be alleviated.
2) I like the inclusion of the children's area, but agree it's placement makes it a ridiculously noisy intrusion on the library. I wouldn't even consider going there to study or find a quiet place.
3) A drive-up book drop really is a critical piece. While I'm not sure why anyone would be forced to return books at 11:00pm at night, I do think a lot of parking congestion would be eased if there was a way to just drop books at a drive-through collection. It would improve getting the books back on time too since the "hassle factor" of parking and walking in is a little bit of a deterrent.
4) The exterior, blue, corrugated metal wall is really unattractive and does not fit the neighborhood at all (and I normally love blue!). That facade needs to change to something more modest and in keeping with the surrounding neighborhood.
5) Same with the exterior yellow accents - tone it down.

5 people like this
Posted by Nearby Neighbor
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 16, 2015 at 12:11 pm

With the Mitchell Park library parking lot full on weekends, how come we have ten spaces marked "permit parking only", whose entitled to a permit anyway?

Just behind the library in the Mitchell Park parking area a red curb has been painted right behind the Little League field. I made some inquiries and found out that that space must be left empty so City workers have somewhere to put the leaves in the Fall. So the City has set aside some 20 parking spaces for themselves.

When the parking lots are full I'm glad most people ignore the red curbs and the obnoxious "permit parking only" signs.

1 person likes this
Posted by Mark
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 16, 2015 at 12:43 pm

Before Alison began to do the heavy lifting at the library--Alison Cormack--was instrumental in starting a volunteer based organization at Palo Verde School where her children were attending along with my wife Sharon's and mine. The organization's goal was to rally support from school children's parents for parents who's family had been visited upon by some form of tragedy; ours was. I was involved in a car accident and a subsequent stroke which resulted during a medical procedure.

Alison Cormack was instrumental in targeting our family, for what I now recall, was the first family to receive meals prepared, and dropped off at our home, around dinner time, each night by so many giving, generous and unsung wonderful people in our community (including Alison Cormack several times) who will never fully understand the impact each of them had of them had on our family.

In our case, because I was unable to shop, cook, or take care of our children's food needs ultimately my own weight dropped from 185 Lbs to under 150 Lbs because there not much to eat. Alison Cormack orchestrated meals which were dropped off every night at our home for almost a full year at which point in time my driver's license was reinstated, I was out of bed, and I was even walking and driving again.

Alison Cormack has had a large positive impact on our families wellbeing and I will always be in her debt, as well as in the debt of those in our community.

Mark Samson

4 people like this
Posted by Jane
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 16, 2015 at 1:32 pm

My husband and I use the new library a few times a week. Thank you to all who persevered and made it happen!

2 people like this
Posted by Mom of internet fans.
a resident of Gunn High School
on Mar 16, 2015 at 1:38 pm

I love the new libraries. As the mom of two very electronically connected kids, I can say that books are NOT on the way out. My girls love the internet. They also love to crack open a good book...and Kindle doesn't cut it for them.

The new libraries offer fantastic ways to connect online, but they also offer enough comfortable, sunny sitting spaces. They offer rooms where people can meet to do projects--with online connectivity. The new libraries are wonderful--offering old and new ways for literate people to connect to find information and pleasure in READING. This is a blessing. There's always room to improve, but let's just be grateful for the new facilities.

I'm grateful to the MANY, many people who participated in this campaign. I'm grateul to Alison and her team for providing the leadership that made it happen.

FYI...Most people I speak with LOVE the new libraries. I don't think some of the remarks here are indiactive of broad community sentiment.

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

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