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Library "friends" blocked open discussion on future of libraries

Original post made by Chris Kenrick, Old Palo Alto, on Jul 14, 2006

Thank you for Bill D'Agostino's July 5 exploration of the not-always-friendly role of "friends" groups in relation to our local organizations, particularly the role of the Friends of the Palo Alto Library, of which I am a former board member.

It is highly regrettable that Palo Alto is losing an outstanding library director, Paula Simpson, at least in part because of friction from the Friends.

The Friends of the Palo Alto Library deserves enormous credit for its monthly volunteer-run book sales, which generate hundreds of thousands of dollars for our libraries. The book sale is a first-class operation that promotes recycling and culturally enriches our community.

When it comes to politics, however, the Friends are not necessarily friendly to our libraries. As a newcomer three years ago, Simpson devoted considerable time and energy to meeting with Palo Altans and trying to spark a community-wide conversation about the future of our run-down, behind-the-times libraries.

In this regard, she was thwarted at every turn by activists from the Friends, whose board is dominated by zealous advocates of our current five-branch system. Rather than trying to help foster a genuine, open-minded discussion about what our libraries could become, this group organized to block that discussion and to insist on preserving the current branch configuration no matter what.

Ultimately a city survey appeared to confirm that Palo Altans are fairly satisfied with the libraries as they are and any forward momentum generated by Simpson was stalled. Thus we are losing an energetic, talented and dedicated library director who did her best to spark open discussion and move us forward.

She deserves our thanks and she will be difficult to replace.

Comments (11)

Posted by Walter Sedriks
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 14, 2006 at 10:35 pm

Chris Kenrick takes a lot of words to express the following sentiment: That Paula Simpson, the former Library Director resigned in part because of friction with the Friends of the Palo Alto Library (FOPAL) over FOPAL’s strong support of what the community had repeatedly expressed a preference for; namely keeping a viable neighborhood branch library system.

It has become fairly obvious that Ms Simpson was hired by Frank Benest, the City Manager, to find justification for and then implement closure of the Downtown and College Terrace neighborhood branches. That is the momentum which Ms Simpson was generating and which Ms Kenrick so strongly applauds and admires. Hopefully that momentum has now more than just stalled.

Posted by Sanford Forte
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 15, 2006 at 3:45 am

In fact, Paula Simpson made heroic attempts to recover from early misjudgments of community sentiment regarding our library's branch system. She came to support the branch system, and clearly said so. In fact, she took many actions to strengthen the branch system through the introduction of experimental volunteer programs to many other actions - all within the constraints of severely limited staff and fiscal resources.

The zealot-like behavior that was generated by the otherwise good people under question at FoPAL (a worthy community institution, and home to heroic volunteers), - was an abuse of their power, used to consitently thwart Ms. Simpson's repeated attempts to include them in a dialogue that would have strengthened our library. This group simply wanted Ms. Simpson gone, because she and her staff wouldn't bow to their every wish. They succeeded; that should not be permitted to happen again.

The problem that the Weekly article spoke to is more widely known than one might think, and might have gone on unnoticed if not for the Weekly's article, and follow-up diligence by those who care about our library and community enough to shine some light on this problem.

The FoPAL behavior in question must change; that's certainly possible - either voluntarily, or by FoPAL membership mandate or board election. The people involved are otherwise good people who acted - in the absense of healthy institutional boundaries - in a way that led them to believe they could have their way with a public institution.

Something has to be done about this at the policy level; otherwise, misplaced zealotry will continue and live another day to create library mayhem.

New policy, directed by Council, should direct that donations to be accepted only in general categories, so that that those donations cannot be used to extract unwanted changes changes or force adjustments in the library contrary to what trained library staff, working in conjunction with the everyday input of normal library patrons, know works best.

Our library, community, and hard-working FoPAL members and volunteers deserve no less.

Posted by art liberman
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 15, 2006 at 3:03 pm

"Trust us, we know best" is the idea that Sanford Forte says is what Palo Altans and the Friends should do to help the libraries. Meaning, do not speak out, do not express your opposition to flawed ideas, but just be content to be led by a library administration that has its own, unpublicized agenda, even one that is obviously widely unpopular.

Wrong- the library is not a doctor's office where patients come to ask for advice. The library is a service organization, meaning it serves the public, not the other way around. The Friends do a wonderful job in keeping the library administration aware of what their job really is, a role often forgotten when officials who are entrusted to run an agency for the public instead tend to care more about their bureaucracy and fiefdom than their role as public servants.

The last library director never missed an opportunity to resist suggestions from the Friends, finding arguments and excuses and raising objections at every turn. Let's hope we never have another library director who comes riding into town pushing an agenda without hearing what the constituency wants, and remains tone deaf to the community views. If we do, I, for one, am reassured that the Friends will be there to keep that person honest.

Posted by Sanford Forte
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 16, 2006 at 1:46 am

On the contrary, Mr. Liberman, speaking out and expressing a preference is one of the great things available to all citizens in a democracy, including Palo Alto; that's always to be encouraged. In fact, Paula Simpson held _at least_ a few dozen - maybe more - community and open institutional meetings, taking all manner of feedback. When was the last time that happened in Palo Alto; it had never happened in our library? Where you get the idea that Ms. Simpson didn't listen is beyond me. I've rarely seen any public bureaucrat go "on the road" as much as Ms. Simpson did. Can you think of anyone who has?

What's clearly _not_ acceptable is when citizen activists cross the line and begin to treat their fellow human beings - in this case hard working library staff - with outright conscious disrespect - including, in this case, a determined stonewalling of productive policy changes meant to improve operations. (see my prior post for just a few examples). That's called 'bad behavior', Mr. Lieberman, behavior that no person - government bureaucrat, or anyone else - should have to endure.

Your perception of the problems are your own, but might I suggest asking about this outside your circle of friends, who appear to have theior minds made up. You might be surprised with what you find out. In fact, I've been gratified to receive an outpouring of support of what I'm saying, as opposed to a very relative few who disagree with me; that alone appears to indicate a different community ethic than the one you're promoting.

In fact, this writer also differed with Paula Simpson on a number of issues, but those differences were resolved in dialogue, in an atmosphere of mutual respect - with end results often resulting in "let's agree to disagree". This is clearly _not_ the behavior that was exhibited - then, or now - by those you defend.

That the harrassment of Paula Simpson and the library continues even after her departure deserves a determined response, with an insistence that certain long-ingrained and counterproductive behaviors cease. The latter doesn't refer to free speech, or the right to question one's government, Mr. Lieberman. Rather, it refers to stonewalling overall progress in our library, and a series of other disruptive behaviors that I won't list here.

It's revealing to hear your claim that those under discussion (because it's not the whole of the Friends; it's just a relative few) "do a wonderful job in keeping the library administration aware of what their job really is". That's the problem, Mr. Lieberman, as they appear to have taken themselves to a presumptive place where the library is their own personal domain, to be run as _they_ see fit, and may the gods help anyone who sees differently. The irony here is that that the behavior in question has _hurt_ our local library. Has anyone thought of _that_, Mr. Lieberman? That attitude needs to change, or the people in question need to step away and let FoPAL focus on what it does best - i.e raising money for our library.

We're not talking about bad people, Mr. Lieberman. The people involved are good people who have - again, in the absence of healthy boundaries - evolved a hubris that is harmful to the library.

Their behavior needs to change, so that FoPAL can continue _constructive_ work with the library. That's the goal. That's what most everyone deserves - including the many dedicated FoPAL members and volunteers who contribute so much, and including the thousands of library patrons and dedicated library staff who work so hard to deliver a delightful library experience. Those are the people I'm most concerned about, and continue stand in defense of.

Posted by Gordon
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 17, 2006 at 12:16 pm

Everyone keeps talking about this survey like it's the holy grail. Are Palo Altans REALLY satisfied with ageing branch libraries and no showcase central library? Have any of you actually BEEN to Redwood City's national-award-winning library, or Mountain View's beautiful main library?
Mayby the FOPAL members should get out of town every once in a while and see how Palo Alto's neighbors have surpassed us on this front.
I for one am NOT satisfied with the system the way it is, and think there are some selfish, powerful people keeping us from having anything better.

Posted by Noah
a resident of University South
on Jul 18, 2006 at 8:54 am

Two main points.

1. I am one of the people that really, really likes the branch library system. Our first child is on the way and given the choice, I'd rather be able to WALK to the library with my kid than have to get in the car and DRIVE to one. I completely respect your right to disagree, but I'm getting tired of all of the labels put on either side of this issue. I'm certainly not a "selfish, powerful" person, but I would vote or answer a survey with my honest goal - to keep the branch libraries intact.

2. Aside from having a "showcase", "beautiful", or "award-winning" library, can you point to some specific services or needs that the library does not currently address well? I asked this question on another discussion thread a few weeks ago and got almost no responses. For the sake of positive dialogue, I would make the following suggestions:

------ Suggestions ------
1. Extend library hours at all locations, possibly using volunteers or limited staff to do so. I would guess that most of the people who frequently use the library services, and would want to show up at 10pm, would already know how to find books or use the automated check out.

2. Add the self-checkout systems to the branches. I've used these at the main branch and it works very well. I see people of all ages and heights using these systems easily and without assistance. These systems work well and I would guess are not prohibitively expensive. This could almost certainly reduce the need for staff hours at some locations.

3. Please add your ideas here! The people and city council of Palo Alto have clearly expressed their desire to maintain the branch system. What would you change, knowing this?

Posted by r
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 18, 2006 at 10:33 am

I would really love to have just ONE good library in Palo Alto that I'd be willing to use! If there's any money left over for branch libraries then great, otherwise close them.

Posted by Noah
a resident of University South
on Jul 18, 2006 at 11:44 am

Dear "r", a resident of the Crescent Park neighborhood,

I noted in my previous post the FACT that Palo Alto residents by means of both a survey and an elected city council have already decided to keep the branch libraries open.

As I asked in my previous email:
Aside from having a "showcase", "beautiful", or "award-winning" library, can you point to some specific services or needs that the library does not currently address well?

Perhaps some good ideas will come out of this forum that can bubble up to improve our libraries. Aside from "one vs branches", what specifically bothers you about the current main or Mitchell branches? Maybe there are some cost efficient ways we can improve the libraries.

Posted by Sanford Forte
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 18, 2006 at 12:57 pm

"1. Extend library hours at all locations, possibly using volunteers or limited staff to do so. I would guess that most of the people who frequently use the library services, and would want to show up at 10pm, would already know how to find books or use the automated check out."
First, all good questions.

Additional hours directly imply staff time. That means money that the system currently doesn't have, or would be constrained to find. This is a conundrum because having different branches opening and closing at different times does create confusion.

There is/was a test program that uses volunteers tried at College Terrace; that program was started by Paula Simpson and carried on by College Terrace volunteers.

In helping to set that program up (as a very minor participant); it quickly became apparent that it's no easy task to dependably schedule volunteers. There are also some challenges with putting volunteers in libraries because personal information and handling money are two requirements.

It may seem counterintuitive, but in working through some of this stuff, many people were surprised at the challenges involved in bringing volunteers into the system in a way that would guarantee dependability, safety, and integrity.

Personally, volunteerism in the libraries seems like a great idea. It seems that challenges could be overcome if we had a well-coordinated volunteer program, but that would take hiring a full time volunteer coordinator. That takes money.

"2. Add the self-checkout systems to the branches. I've used these at the main branch and it works very well. I see people of all ages and heights using these systems easily and without assistance. These systems work well and I would guess are not prohibitively expensive. This could almost certainly reduce the need for staff hours at some locations."
An excellent idea; this is, by every indication, in the works. It makes perfect sense, and there are many economies to be realized. I think College Terrace is ithe next branch to get self chechout, if it hasn't already.

Posted by Bob Moss
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 22, 2006 at 9:47 am

Sanford Forte again is off-base in his evaluations of the positions of the LAC, the former library director Paula Simpson, expressed community needs and desires, the position of the Board of Friends of Palo alto Libraries, and the City Council.

In December 2004 Paula Simpson and Frank Benest proposed closing Downtown and College Terrace branches, and planning for an expanded "full service library" (CMR513:04). The LAC opposed closing the branches, and supported a full service library with branches retained. The FOPAL Board unamiously supported this. Public comment was strongly opposed to closing or downgrading the 2 branches. The City Council voted 9-0 to reject the recommendations of Simpson and Benest and supported the LAC, FOPAL and the public.

In May 2006 the LAC after an extensive public survey, the LAC and Paula Simpson recommended reduced service levels at Main, making Mitchell Park the replacement Main library, and undefined expansion of Mitchell Park, reducing services for 4th and 5th grades at Children's when it re-opens, reducing the scope of collections at College Terrrace and Main, renaming Main and Downtown, adding Link+ or a similar service, and expanding hours of operation. A minority LAC report disagreed with the reduction in services at Main and reduced children's services, and emphasized expaned collections and improved efficiency of operations. The survey and public reponses to 4 meetings on libraries more closely reflected the minority LAC report than the majority report. FOPAL's Board discussed the LAC and Simpson recommendations that were presented to the City Council and had problems with many of the same points that were objected to by the LAC minority report and public comments, and supported the points that were supported by the LAC, the LAC minority report, and public comments, such as enhanced collections and longer hours of operation, plus upgrading the branches and some sort of expansion for Mitchell Park. The City Council voted 8-0 to adopt policies that paralleled the recomendations of the LAC minority and FOPAL and rejected the LAC and Simpson recomendations that conflicted with them such as reduced scope of collections in branch libraries, reduced 4th and 5th grade resources at Children's and making Mitchell Park a replacement full service library while downgrading Main (CC minutes 5/15/06, p. 6-16).

Sanford Forte also attacked people like Doug Moran and Joy Ogawa, and some unidentified "minority members" of the FOPAL Board for opposing recommendations of Paula Simpson on various matters. In fact when it came to votes by the City Council on proposals by Ms. Simpson to downgrade or close branches, or reduce service levels, or put a single large "full service" library at the top of the priority tree, the City Council opposed them by a total vote of 17-0. Public comments were strongly on the side of the Council votes. The unamious votes and statements of the FOPAL Board (not a tiny minority) were to support positions endorsed by the community, by the extensive survey, by the City Council, and by a minority of the LAC.

BTW, despite the high level of interest in expanded collections by the public, shelves at Downtown are still 1/4 to 1/3 empty. Go into the Downton branch and look.

As for concerns raised about the administration of Paula Simpson, at various times over the past 2 years 5 to 7 members of the FOPAL Board were professional librarians, including a professor of library science. They were among those who were critical of the libray administration during Ms. Simpson's tenure. It wasn't a tiny group, or some uninformed "activitists" who were disenchanted with operations and directions of the library department, it also was some professional librarians.

Posted by Sanford Forte
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 25, 2006 at 1:50 am

Satying with the baseball analogies, Bob Moss has 'struck out' with his contention that I'm off-base. In fact, it's Mr. Moss who opened the volley of attacks against the library, and now attempts to keep running even though the ball is well past him, in the catcher's mitt.

Before continuing, all said below is representative of _bad bahavior_, and NOT bad people.
Behavior can change, as it must foro some few members of the FoPAL board, Mr. Moss among them.

In fact, every single one of Mr. Moss accusations in his last post; his so-called 'facts' and whatever else he says above have been presented out of context to serve his, and a few over-meddling FoPAL board members ends. Every one of his examples above is entirely out of the complete context of what REALLY happened, or is happening with the library.

Mr. Moss and a few others are VERY upset that something they've been doing for two years - i.e. meddling with internal library operations in a way that causes dysfunction and the LOSS of tax dollars - is finally being brought to light. This is a problem that must be fixed if our library is to remain functional, and sustainable.

Mr. Moss, why haven't you responded to the FACT that the FoPAL board members I refer to broke confidentiality agreements in an attempt to manipulate public survey results?

Why won't you speak to the disingenuous presentation of FoPAL board positions by FoPAL board members as they attempt to influence forward bond and tax votes, as those few FoPAL board members (you among them) mask their FoPAL membership by presenting said opinions as "citizens", or "neighborhood association" leaders, or members? I wonder how that sits with FoPAL's non-profit status, Mr. Moss.

It's time for an end to the 'politically correct' attempt to say nothing as you and a few others continue to level public attacks on the library in ways that are abusive, and distort the large picture.

You and a few others have had a two-three year field day "outing" library personnel on false and trumped up imaginings. Now it's time that the public know another side to the story.

You can continue to fight others battles for them Mr. Moss, including Doug Moran and Joy Ogawa, who seemed to delight in spreading private venom and inaccuracies about our library director and our library staff all over this city - a sad role for two people who call themselves "community leaders". I was there to hear, and see, their regrettable behavior.

It's tragic to see you, Mr. Moss - a board member of FoPAL, and just a few other FoPAl board members - getting defensive in a way that has him/them continuing to level attacks on the Palo Alto Library, thus PROVING my point about his/ their operational meddling and obfuscation. THie actions have cost this community a fine library director; stalled library innovations; wasted tax dollars; and deflated library staff moral. No more!

There just isn't any way out of this, Mr. Moss - other than a simple behavior change that keeps you and a few others thinking that they can dictate policy about libraries in Palo Alto. FoPAL is an organization that is supposed to CONTRIBUTE money to the library, not run the library. You and a few others need to get back to doing what FoPAL was doing best, until the current hubris evolved.

If my inbox is any indication (many, many emails at this point - all but 6 in support of my position on this issue), someone - the City Council, FoPAL contributors, FoPAL members, or some combination of these are going to set the current FoPAL board straight.

Again, it's clear that you and a few other FoPAL board members think that you know how to run our library better than any public librarian _who has been appointed as a director_ of the Palo Alto library.

Here's a tip for you; if you think that you, or the 'experienced' librarians on FoPAL's board that agree with you (probably in the minority, from what I hear), can run our library better than it has been run in the past, there is an opening for the position of 'director' - the opening that you and a few others helped to create by your ceaseless (and shameful continuing) harrassment of Paula Simpson and hard-working library staff. Might I suggest you and yuor 'friends' apply for that opening. Start there.

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