While opponents have tried to make the bond measure a referendum on the branch-library system and its inefficiencies, supporters argue that the real issue is whether the community wants to rescue its two highly utilized major libraries from continued decay.
The politics of the campaign are especially tricky, because proponents of the bond measure can't afford to alienate the strong supporters of the branch libraries in College Terrace and Downtown, even though most agree they are not essential elements of a successful system.
So here we sit, after decades of stalemated political intransigence on both sides, even if well-intentioned, while construction costs climb and citizens of all ages are denied access to good libraries. Granted that maintenance has been inadequate as far back as the 1990s, awaiting hoped-for major renovations — but it is scandalous that our libraries have to close on hot days due to lack of air conditioning, or pale in comparison to the modern libraries of neighboring cities.
But that is history, and Measure N is now, although an understanding of how Palo Alto libraries got to where they are might help folks decide — and perhaps re-think — their positions.
The branches argument is almost as old as the city's library system itself, which started as a single library in 1904 on what now is the site of City Hall. But by 1925, residents living in what was then the south end of town — the recently annexed Mayfield area, now California Avenue — wanted something more local and pushed for a second library.
Prophetically, the Palo Alto Times asked in a 1925 editorial: "Will it be of greater value to the residents of this and other outlying sections of the community to have branch libraries than it will to have the same amount of money devoted to the building up of a better central library?"
City leaders bowed to the entreaties and a year later the new branch opened — ultimately relocated to become the College Terrace branch.
The Weekly has long been concerned about inherent inefficiencies and costs of operating multiple branches. The decision of eight-plus decades ago should have been to concentrate on a single branch. Every head librarian since the 1960s has complained of costs and difficulties of staffing and equipping multiple branches.
But community advocates of "neighborhood libraries" have prevailed repeatedly.
In 1940, the Children's Library was built with donated funds.
The new Main Library and Mitchell Park branch were opened on the same day, July 19, 1958. The original library was demolished in 1968 to make way for the new City Hall, and the Downtown branch was built to replace it.
In 1969, City Manager George Morgan recommended closing College Terrace, but in the face of heavy opposition that idea faded. It surged back in 1978 when Library Director June Fleming (later to become city manager), faced with Proposition 13 cutbacks recommended closing College Terrace and Children's libraries and cutting services at other branches. But Mayor Scott Carey joined the opposition: "If you can't read, you don't learn, and if you don't learn the world goes to hell. Closing a learning system bothers me."
The closure debate resumed in 1989, when Fleming essentially dictated a staff report by Library Director Mary Jo Levy that proposed closing three branches, College Terrace, Downtown and Terman (before the Terman branch was reclaimed by the school district).
The issue resurfaced in 2003, following the 2002 failure of a $49.1 million bond measure for library upgrades — it fell short of two-thirds approval with only 61 percent voter support. The city's Library Advisory Commission recommended closing the Downtown branch, but the idea was trounced by a barrage of defenders.
The last resurgence was under embattled Library Director Paula Simpson, who in 2004 pushed hard to close College Terrace and Downtown branches to improve service at the two larger libraries. But the City Council unanimously rejected the plan on Dec. 13, 2004.
Now at last it is time to break free from this endless stalemate. Current Library Director Diane Jennings has made significant improvements in staffing efficiencies, with more being discussed. The branches, heavy library usage, inefficient arrangement of the larger libraries and inefficient use of staff contribute to higher per-capita costs frequently cited by Measure N opponents.
But the reality is that the half-century-old Main Library and Mitchell have become increasingly run down and inadequate to meet the needs of our seniors, young persons and families who utilize them the most — the Internet notwithstanding.
In the past decade our libraries have reached the embarrassment stage as neighboring communities, such as Mountain View, have created shiny new libraries and stocked them with rich collections of books and materials.
We are not a big supporter of the branches, but in the big picture the amount dedicated to them in Measure N is small, almost inconsequential, and the two smaller branches have been slowly morphing into library/community centers, with half of College Terrace already a child care center.
And Measure N would do more than simply refurbish the libraries. It would also combine the equally shabby Mitchell Park Community Center into a beautifully designed joint facility wrapped around an historic oak tree and courtyard.
There also is a basic political reality: A recent opinion survey showed 10 percent less support for bonds if the Downtown branch is not retained, dropping support to 53 percent — impossibly below the two-thirds needed.
We must at last set aside this old stalemated debate and move forward with upgrading Main and Mitchell Park if we are to have any hope of having better facilities to benefit this generation of users. The debate of the branch libraries can wait for another day. Our two major libraries cannot.
We urge Palo Altans to vote YES on Measure N.
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