The first library was built on Hamilton Avenue in 1904, on the site of what is now City Hall. The Children's Library was donated to the city and opened in 1940.
Main and Mitchell Park libraries opened on the same day — July 19, 1958. City Manager Jerry Keithley bragged it would give Palo Alto "more libraries per capita than any other city in the state."
When the first branch was demolished in 1968 to make way for City Hall, the Downtown Library was built to replace it.
Finally, in 1985, the Terman Park Library was opened to fill a perceived need in southwest Palo Alto. But in 2002, when the school district reopened the middle school that housed the branch, the city closed it as a public facility.
Over time, the smaller libraries have faced numerous other attempts to close them. Here are four from the last four decades:
In 1969 City Manager George Morgan recommended closing the College Terrace branch, noting that its "location is somewhat isolated, access is difficult, book circulation is relatively low and the facility is inefficient."
Even though it wasn't closed, feelings of mistrust lingered for years.
In 1972, even though there was no plan to do so, Gail Hall wrote a letter to city leaders asking them not to close the branch, saying the library was a constant part of her family's life.
"My children are able to hop on their bikes and go there to look up some subject that we have been talking about or something that interests them," she wrote. "My 7-year-old daughter has developed an intense and continuing interest in pollywogs and frogs and from there is rapidly becoming very knowledgeable and aware of a growing number of animals that she contacts and wants to contact."
The letter prompted a response from City Manager George Sipel, saying the upcoming year's budget "does not recommend a reduction in library service or the closing of any library facilities."
In 1978, to save $264,000 from the upcoming year's budget, City Manager June Fleming, the city's former library director, recommended closing the College Terrace and Children's libraries and reducing services at other branches.
"I don't know a city our size that has the level of service we have," Fleming said. She insisted that the historic Children's Library wasn't really closing, since its services would be relocated to the Main Library.
At the time, the city was facing huge funding shortfalls due to the recently passed Proposition 13, which vastly reduced the city's property tax revenue.
Mayor Scott Carey, among numerous others, opposed the city manager's plan.
"If you can't read, you don't learn, and if you don't learn, the world goes to hell," he said. "Closing a learning system bothers me."
In 1989, Library Director Mary Jo Levy and City Manager Fleming advised closing three of the six branches to upgrade the three most-used sites: Mitchell Park, Children's and Main.
There was little public support for the plan.
"It's hard to believe we can't afford our branch libraries, in this town, in this economy," Sally Schuman wrote in a column for the Weekly.
The Palo Alto council members never actually voted for or against the plan. Rather, they asked for it to be discussed by the then nascent Library Advisory Commission.
The old libraries were, Levy and Fleming noted, busting at the seams.
"There's a reason why banks close branches," Levy said recently (2004). She's now on the board of the Palo Alto Library Foundation.
"They're expensive to operate any way you look at them."
Today, according to Levy, the library's situation is even more desperate than it was back then. The buildings still haven't been upgraded, the hours have been trimmed, and, next year the city is facing a $5.2 million deficit.
"I hate to say those were the good days," Levy said of the end of her tenure.
In 2003, after a $49.1 million bond measure to upgrade the Mitchell Park and Children's libraries failed at the polls in 2002, the Library Advisor Commission came up with a new proposal to close the Downtown branch. It also included a recommendation for a new bond measure and other improvements.
At the City Council study session to discuss the ideas, numerous residents bombarded the council, asking them to keep the Downtown branch open. Few spoke in favor of the commission's plan.
Again, no decision was officially made at the meeting. One year later, there has still been no official new council policy on libraries. Monday night is expected to be that landmark date.
"It would be my hope that the City Council starts thinking long range instead of short range and stops listening to the same people who are, frankly, defending their turf at the expense of the entire community," said John Kagel, a former library commissioner who decided not to reapply for the commission when his term expired, out of frustration.
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