Some residents worried about a potential geographical divide after the Library Advisory Commission recommended turning Mitchell Park Library into the city's "full-service library," while focusing the other four branches on specific roles.
Critics alleged that plan downgraded the northern Palo Alto libraries.
"Do we need World War III in Palo Alto?" resident Mary Carlstead asked the council in an e-mail. "Do you want that? Given the size of the city, we need two 'main libraries.'"
Mitchell Park Library is the city's busiest, but also the most packed. The commission's plan attempted to lessen that overcrowding.
Former commissioner Tom Wyman warned the council that a perception of a snub could hurt the city's chances for any library funding measures put before voters.
"We need to develop some kind of project that will appeal to both north and south within Palo Alto," Wyman said.
Hearing those and other concerns, the council unanimously voted to conceptually back a modified plan that would expand the Mitchell Park Library without calling it a "full-service library" and without diminishing services at Main Library, the north's largest branch.
"The last thing we need is a north/south dispute," Councilman Larry Klein said Tuesday. "That's a sure recipe for failure."
The library commission was asked to return with details by September, which could also include expanding the other branches.
When Palo Alto Library Director Paula Simpson worked in Oregon for a county library system, there was a geographical split between rural and non-rural users that librarians had to consider.
"This is a different phenomenon," she said about Palo Alto, "because the city isn't that large geographically, especially if you remove all the open space. Yet nevertheless, it's real."
The divide stems from the 1950s, when the land south of Oregon/Page Mill was annexed into Palo Alto. Joseph Eichler and other developers built new homes in the area, but a doubling in the number of residents was not met with a boost in city facilities.
The new residents "began to feel that they were bearing the burden of all development proposals," former Mayor Gary Fazzino said. "There was a feeling that the establishment folks that lived in the older parts of town, Crescent Park (neighborhood) in particular, did not give them much attention and tended to favor the northern part of town."
The divide came to a head in 1962, when the community voted on — and narrowly approved — a proposal to expand Oregon Avenue into Oregon Expressway.
"Folks in the south felt the Oregon Expressway would really divide the community, creating two separate communities, and make it more difficult to have any access to City Hall," Fazzino said.
Monday night was one of the few incidents Fazzino could recall when residents in the north felt a city proposal would slight them.
Some think the geographical dispute is not at the heart of the library issue.
Friends of the Palo Alto Library board member Ellen Wyman, Tom Wyman's wife, believes the real debate is between those who want a strong central library versus those who want beefed-up branches. She's in the latter category.
Spreading services across the branches "would serve everybody better," she argued. "Everybody would feel they got a piece of the pie."
But commissioner John Stucky, a librarian at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, argued the health of the branches requires a strong "trunk" library.
"The fear is if we do too little now, the branches will suffer," he said.
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