Hi there!
You're viewing the archived version of the website used in the successful campaign for Palo Alto's Measure N Library Bond in November 2008. The Palo Alto Library Foundation (PALF) lead the bond campaign and now leads a fundraising campaign to fill our new libraries with books, technology, and furniture!
PALF's website is no longer online. For ongoing support of our libraries please visit the Friends of the Palo Alto Library (FOPAL) website here: https://www.fopal.org

Library News

Make some news!

Send letters to our local papers and tell them why you support Measure N! Only one week left before the election!
Hint: Make sure to include your first and last name, home address, and phone number when sending your letter. They only publish your name and city.

Recent news...

Staff Editorial
Palo Alto Daily News : Nov 1st, 2008

Palo Altans face an important decision next week: whether to spend $76 million to improve three of the city's five libraries. We understand it's not an easy move to support, given the long running controversy over the branch system and the sinking economy.

But the truth is the city's book-lending facilities are in a terrible state of disrepair, and Measure N appears to be the most feasible way to deliver a library that is finally on par with offerings found in other Peninsula cities, namely Mountain View and San Mateo.

To cast this measure as a referendum on the branch library system would be a mistake.

At its core, the ballot initiative is about fixing up two of the city's most popular libraries: Main and Mitchell Park. Unlike 2002's failed Measure D, Measure N isn't asking voters to endorse the branch system with a wide array of improvement projects for all five locations.

The bond initiative will cost each homeowner about $139 annually over a period of 30 years. It will allow the city to rebuild the Mitchell Park Library and Community Center, essentially turning it into the city's primary facility; overhaul and expand the Main Library; and renovate the Downtown branch. Improvements already have been made to the Children's Library and work on College Terrace is being paid for with city funds.

While the Downtown branch is included in the bond - its backers had little choice given early polling that showed a precipitous drop in voter support without it- Mitchell Park and Main will receive the lion's share of the improvements and funds.

Opponents have laid the responsibility for the poor condition of Palo Alto's libraries at the feet of city management. While it is deplorable that city leaders allowed the facilities to decay to the point they're at now, a "no" vote won't magically reverse their condition. The bulk of the system dates back to the 1950s and would likely need an overhaul regardless of diligent upkeep.

As much as the three libraries need the work - they've been closed early 10 days this year due to excessive temperatures caused by poor ventilation - we fear there isn't sufficient voter support to pass the measure.

Poll results released in July indicated support for the measure was at 65 percent, just shy of the two-thirds majority needed for it to pass, with 7 percent undecided. Chances are good the meltdown on Wall Street has reduced backing for the bond.

Still, with a triple A credit rating, Palo Alto is ready to take on the bond debt, even in these uncertain economic times. That's an important factor to keep in mind heading into the voting booth next week.

It's time to step beyond the intractable branch system debate and move the city's primary libraries, Main and Mitchell Park, into the 21st century. Join us in supporting Measure N.

It's long past time to renew our libraries
by Alison Cormack
Palo Alto Weekly : Oct 24th, 2008

I support Measure N because it is a reasonable plan to fix our embarrassing libraries. And, it's past time to renew our libraries in this city!

Our libraries are heavily used, even in this era of computers and the Internet. Our circulation is up 45 percent in the past seven years and totaled 1.5 million books, DVDs and other materials in the last fiscal year. Our five libraries have 2,400 visitors every day.

Yet our two primary libraries opened in 1958. Main and Mitchell were built with proceeds from a bond passed in 1956. They were under construction in 1957, the year that Sputnik was launched and Fairchild Semiconductor was founded.

If you think about how much has changed in the world and Silicon Valley since 1957, and you know that our libraries have essentially stayed the same, you can appreciate the problem we have.

We've got Sputnik-era libraries in the age of the iPod and Google. What do our neighbors provide? Since Measure D failed in 2002, the following communities have built new libraries: San Francisco, Millbrae, Belmont, San Mateo, Redwood City, Santa Clara, Saratoga, Cupertino, San Jose and Morgan Hill. Our city auditor determined that our "cramped and dilapidated" library facilities are in poor condition and the worst in the area.

What does Measure N do? More than 90 percent of the money will be used to build a new, energy-efficient Mitchell Park Library and Community Center and renovate and modestly expand Main Library. Downtown Library will also be renovated using Measure N funds. (Children's Library has already been renovated and expanded and College Terrace will be renovated and brought up to code next year using city funds.) For detailed plans, please visit www.betterlibrariesforpaloalto.com.

How much does it cost? The median assessed home in Palo Alto will pay $139 a year. After the federal income-tax deduction, that's about a latte a week to bring all of our libraries into the 21stcentury. (The tax is assessed at $28.74 per $100,000 of assessed value). It is a 30-year bond to raise up to $76 million, and works just like the school bond passed in June or a home mortgage.

Will we get more books and services? The bond will give us room for 70,000 more books at Mitchell Park, which will be available to everyone in the city with the click of a mouse. We'll also get three kinds of spaces we don't have today:

  1. Small rooms where students can prepare oral presentations, tutors can work with English language learners, and entrepreneurs can collaborate on new business plans.
  2. Computer training rooms where classes on the library's databases and the Internet can be offered to help with genealogy research, students' homework, travel planning, and much more.
  3. A larger program room at Main and Mitchell that is available for author lectures and other community events.

What can't the bond pay for? By law, bond funds cannot pay for staff, books, computers, furniture or maintenance. The Palo Alto Library Foundation is laying the groundwork to spearhead a private fundraising campaign to fill the library with the books, furniture and computers we will need. The City Council will use general funds to pay for the staff and utilities costs. The Council understands this budget challenge and has repeatedly supported this plan unanimously.

Those 1,200 orange lawn signs you see all over town are the result of months of outreach at events, the work of our schools team and the word-of-mouth effect from more than 25 presentations I have made in neighborhoods across the city. Our endorsement list of more than 1,100 supporters includes a wide range of organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce, Friends of PreSchool Family, Friends of the Palo Alto Library, Addison Elementary PTA, the Palo Alto Recreation Foundation, the Gunn High School Parent Teacher Student Association, the Chinese American Librarians Association, and Stanford University.

This tremendous support demonstrates how committed this city is to renewing our libraries.It has been an honor to be the chair of this important campaign and I ask for your "yes" vote on Measure N.

Please join our team and make better libraries for Palo Alto a reality on Nov. 4th

Alison Cormack is chair of the Better Libraries for Palo Alto campaign and also the President of the Palo Alto Library Foundation.
By PA Weekly Editorial Board
Palo Alto Weekly: Oct 3rd, 2008
From the article:

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.

By Patty Fisher
Mercury News: Oct 2nd, 2008
From the article:

While the politicians and pundits postulate about the impact of the Wall Street debacle on Main Street, I've been worrying about the impact on Rosanna Street. Rosanna Street in Gilroy, that is. I'm also worried about Newell and Middlefield roads in Palo Alto.

Why those particular locations? Because they are home to some of the most outdated, overcrowded libraries in Santa Clara County, libraries crying out for extreme makeovers. And the mood of the local electorate during this time of economic uncertainty could determine whether they get those makeovers.

For years people in Gilroy and Palo Alto have watched in envy as their neighbors built spacious, modern libraries. After years of grass-roots organizing and design work, both cities finally put library bond measures on the November ballot - just as the economy came unglued. Talk about bad luck.


Up the road in Palo Alto, where there are five branch libraries, folks have been talking about fixing them up for as along as I can remember. In 2002, a $49 million library bond barely missed getting the needed two-thirds majority. This time the city is proposing Measure N, a $76 million bond measure to replace the Mitchell Park library and to renovate the main branch on Newell and the small downtown library.

Time to rebuild

Alison Cormack of the Yes on N campaign says these libraries were built in 1957, the year Sputnik was launched and Fairchild Semiconductor was founded.

"The city is doing exactly what a family would do if they moved to Palo Alto and bought a 50-year-old home," she said. "They're renovating the main library, because it's a historic building, but Mitchell Park is the wrong size, so they're tearing it down and starting over."

By Don Kazak
Palo Alto Weekly: Sept 10th, 2008
From the article:

Palo Alto may take on a orange hue in the next month. That's the plan, at least, of the campaign for Measure N on the Nov. 4 ballot.

The measure would provide $76 million in bonds to improve the city's libraries, if voters give it two-thirds approval. The campaign hopes to have 1,000 large, orange lawn signs sprouting up throughout town to give the campaign support. Orange was selected so the signs would stand out from the traditional red-white-and-blue lawn signs of political candidates during a presidential election campaign.

"We're trying to get more visibility," Alison Cormack, chair of the Measure N campaign, said at Sunday's campaign kick-off on the lawn outside the Main Library.

Rebuilding that library to make it bigger and more comfortable for young students is the best thing that Palo Alto voters could do in caring for the kids who live here.

Letter to the editor
Palo Alto Daily News : Sept 5th, 2008

Dear Editor: The undersigned authors, illustrators and filmmakers - who live and work here in Palo Alto - ask the community's support for Measure N. Libraries ought to be cultural hubs for communities, but ours are behind the times. We're left with no room to expand collections, and no place for the community to come together for the kinds of author talks and other discussions about reading and writing that many of us travel to other communities to enjoy. The proposed improvements to the library system would allow us all to take advantage of the wealth of writers the Bay Area offers. In addition, they would provide valuable spaces for ourselves and our children to gather for reading and writing groups, for school and community projects, and for the pleasure of coming together over books. Please help us gain the space in our libraries for us to have these important conversations. Help us renew and rebuild our libraries by supporting Measure N!

  • Tobias Wolff ("Our Story Begins")
  • Marilyn Yalom ("The American Resting Place")
  • Irvin Yalom, M. D. ("Staring at the Sun")
  • Harriet Scott Chessman ("Someone Not Really Her Mother")
  • Bryan J. Wolf ("American Encounters")
  • Caryn Huberman Yacowitz ("Native Americans" series)
  • Christy Hale (illustrator, "Elizabeti's Doll")
  • Firoozeh Dumas ("Laughing Without an Accent")
  • Morten Steen Hansen ("Masterpieces of Italian Painting")
  • Pamela Grossman ("The Making Of A Teacher")
  • Leslie Berlin ("The Man Behind the Microchip")
  • JoAnne Stewart Wetzel ("The Christmas Box")
  • Andrea Lunsford ("The Everyday Writer")
  • Bissera V. Pentcheva ("Icons And Power")
  • Jan Krawitz (filmmaker, "Big Enough")
  • Meg Waite Clayton ("The Wednesday Sisters")
Library efficiency is improved, but we truly need better buildings
by Diane Jennings
Palo Alto Weekly : Sept 3rd, 2008

Is it good policy to continue to maintain five libraries in Palo Alto? The recent decision by the City Council to place a library-construction bond measure on the Nov. 4 ballot has refocused discussion on this longstanding issue in our community. There is now general consensus that our libraries need improvements. However, questions about the plan to achieve these improvements have been raised, including those in this newspaper's July 9 editorial.

In my 22 years as a manager at the Palo Alto City Library, with three and a half of these serving as director, I've been closely involved with the various studies and recommendations developed in recent years to improve our library system. In 1994, former Library Director Mary Jo Levy and I took a funding proposal to City Manager June Fleming to upgrade the Library's technology. Before approving the proposed improvements at all branches, Fleming directed the preparation of a master plan for the library system. That plan recommended the eventual closure of three of the library's then-six branches. The council put the plan on hold and in 1999 formed the Library Advisory Commission.

Since 2000, four more reports, one prepared by staff and three by the Library Advisory Commission, have, in part, addressed the branch question. Each council that reviewed the recommendations of these reports has reached the same conclusion - Palo Alto is best served by a branch system and no library should be closed. The Terman branch was closed when the school district needed the site to reopen a middle school, so we now have five. While it's clear there is not unanimity in the community about the branch question, there is factual support backing the council's policy to maintain our branch-library system.

In 2006, an extensive survey by Godbe Research of residents' opinions about the library included a series of questions on potential design options. A conclusion of the survey was that residents liked the current distributed configuration of the Library. One finding was that 71 percent of the respondents felt having a "library close to home or work" was either very or somewhat important. In contrast, 36 percent said having "library collections and services based in one location with alternate service points" was very or somewhat important. Significantly in terms of the upcoming library-bond election, a telephone poll last June found that support for the proposed bond measure dropped significantly if the project to upgrade the Downtown Library was removed from the proposal.

I agree with those who believe that a multi-branch system is not the most cost-efficient way to provide library service in Palo Alto. We could provide a richer mix of services by operating only one or two facilities. But efficiency does not always equate to effectiveness - nor is it the only factor decision-makers consider in setting public policy.

Some people question the wisdom of continuing to operate the Downtown and College Terrace libraries and spending money to upgrade those buildings. The annual operating cost for these two libraries is now approximately $554,000, or 8.4 percent of the Library Department budget. Facility-maintenance costs are not included in this total, but these would remain even if the city used the buildings for other purposes. Approximately 5 percent of the proceeds from the upcoming bond measure will be used to upgrade the Downtown Library. The City's existing infrastructure fund will cover the needed renovations at College Terrace.

The costs to operate these two libraries have been held to a minimum. In 2003, as part of citywide budget cutbacks, we reduced hours and staffing at College Terrace and Downtown. Expensive reference collections were eliminated and professional librarians were reassigned to other libraries.

Despite these changes, circulation has increased at a faster rate at these branches in the last six years than across the library system as a whole. We seem to have found a good model for our smallest branches.

How to allocate staff in support of library service is largely a question of priorities. One of the recommendations from the 2007 Audit of Library Operations is to explore alternative patterns of scheduling staff to open more hours.

While increased hours is one goal for improved library service, the community has identified many others - better collections, additional programs for children and teens, more outreach to those who cannot come to the libraries, closer coordination with our school libraries, improved technology and better facilities. All these goals require staff support to achieve. A system to track staff hours spent to provide current library services is now in place. This will provide the needed data to evaluate the potential of additional hours and possible impacts on other services.

I agree with the Weekly's editorial board that Palo Alto's voters need to see a complete, detailed response to the library audit recommendations. We'll be bringing a report to council by early October about the library audit and our progress on its 32 recommendations - 80 percent of which have already been completed or are in progress. While questions on how best to use staff and which service improvements have the highest priority will continue to be evaluated in the months ahead, last year's audit report clearly stated that Palo Alto's library facilities are in poor condition.

With the exception of the newly renovated Children's Library, our city libraries are outdated, lack space for growth of the collections, are not fully compliant with current seismic and other building codes, and do not provide the kinds of spaces enjoyed by residents in the majority of our neighboring communities.

Without upgrades that address these facility needs, the possibilities for significant library improvements are very limited. We have made and are making important strides in improving staffing efficiency and in improving our collections, but we truly need to upgrade our physical resources to make our libraries what they deserve to be to serve our residents, young and old and in between.

Library Director Diane Jennings can be e-mailed at [email protected]
World Journal: Sept 3rd, 2008

APA (Asian Pacific American) Outreach Committee of Better Libraries for Palo Alto formed on 9/1/08. The kickoff lunch meeting was reported in leading Chinese newspaper World Journal

From the article:

"The Committee aims to reach into the fast-growing Asian communities for support of the library improvement plan. The Committee launched its efforts in informing and engaging APAs to vote for Measure N through community media and personal contacts."

By Associated Press
CNN: Sept 1st, 2008
From the article:

That's what users of public libraries are doing in record numbers these days. In an effort to stay entertained and informed without breaking the family budget, Americans across the U.S. are increasingly taking advantage of the best deal in town: everything - books, CDs, even video game sessions - is free.

"When the economy goes down, public library use goes up,'' said John Moorman, director of the Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia.

Host: Michael Krasny
KQED Radio: Aug 26th, 2008

On the radio show "Forum, with Michael Krasny", guests discuss the future of libraries

The Palo Alto library bond is discussed at the 40:30 mark by a caller.

  • Al Escoffier, city librarian for the Burlingame Public Library
  • Jane Light, director of the San Jose Library
  • Jim Rettig, president of the American Library Association
  • Martin Gomez, president of the Urban Libraries Council
Listen here:
Silicon Valley Moms Blog: August 19th, 2008
From the blog post:

"Mom, can we go to the Mitchell Park library?" Excuse me? What sweet music to my ears? After years of dragging him to check out books, my eight-year-old son discovered, this summer, that libraries are cool. Ironically this is not because my son has become a serious bookworm, hiding behind a new read every time he gets a chance. In fact, my kid remains decidedly fickle about reading for pleasure, which is why his love for Mitchell Park library means that much more to me.

So what draws him to the place? Firstly, the high speed computers, where he can play lego.com in the kids' area while mom reads to his little sister. But after a while, and this is the part I love, he starts to look at books. He may wander. He may browse. But eventually he tends to find something he wants to check out.

Libraries were never meant to attract only book fanatics. They were meant to appeal to all types of people, those looking for community, fast computers, foreign language newspapers or maybe just a place to get tutoring, find a DVD or hang out with friends. Sure books are the core part of a library, and should remain so, but a wonderful library offers so much more.

Full text of the Library Bond Measure and ballot language
Palo Alto City Council: Aug 4th, 2008

The City of Palo Alto's ordinance for the library bond measure can be found here:

By Becky Trout / Palo Alto Weekly Staff
Palo Alto Weekly: July 22nd, 2008
From the article:

A $76-million library bond measure will appear on the November ballots of Palo Alto voters, the City Council confirmed Monday night.

Recent polling shows 63 to 66 percent of likely Palo Alto voters support the current measure. A group known as Better Libraries for Palo Alto is working to push that support above the required two-thirds level.

"We're ready for this. We're ready to go out and help ask the community for libraries that we believe they want," Councilman John Barton said.

Palo Alto's current library facilities are an embarrassment, Councilman Jack Morton said.

Mayor Larry Klein said the city hasn't constructed a new building, excluding restrooms at Greer Park, since 1972.

He assigned himself, Vice Mayor Peter Drekmeier, Morton and Councilman Yiaway Yeh to draft a ballot statement.

By Kristina Peterson / Daily News Staff Writer
Palo Alto Daily News : July 8th, 2008
From the article:

Palo Alto residents will vote this fall on a $75 million bond measure designed to improve the city's library system, the city council decided late Monday night.

In a unanimous vote, with Council Member Jack Morton absent, the council approved placing the bond measure on the Nov. 4 ballot, Mayor Larry Klein said.

"The campaign needs to be vigorous and I think it will be," said Klein.

By Will Oremus / Daily News Staff Writer
Palo Alto Daily News : July 5th, 2008
From the article:

Better Libraries for Palo Alto hoped to create a stir at the contest by enlisting veteran Google sous chef Raymond Nottie, known to chili lovers on the company's Mountain View campus as Ray-Ray. They failed to nab an award - a testament to the well-honed chops of cook-off mainstays such as Elmo, the Chili Penguins and the Palo Alto Fire Department - but succeeded in drawing attention to their push for a library bond on the November ballot.

Better Libraries for Palo Alto launches campaign
by Better Libraries campaign
Press Release : June 27th, 2008

The Better Libraries for Palo Alto campaign launched today with a gathering at Mitchell Park between the library and the community center. The campaign committee announced that it has entered the Chili Cookoff competition next week on the Fourth of July . "Ray Ray" Nottie, the Google chili chef, will be bringing his own secret spices and making his Google chili recipe at the Better Libraries booth.

Chair Alison Cormack also announced that the campaign has already received $47,500 in donations and a $2,500 pledge for a total of $50,000 raised. "This level of support this early in the campaign demonstrates that our community understands the urgent need to rebuild and renovate our libraries," said Cormack.

The campaign has a fundraising target of $120,000. This is somewhat higher than the recent successful Measure A campaign's expenses because the library bond measure will require a 2/3 majority to pass in November and will be on a lengthy ballot with many issues competing for voters' attention.

For more information, visit the campaign website at www.betterlibrariesforpaloalto.com . Campaign volunteers will also be attending events throughout Palo Alto during the summer and fall to share information about the libraries with residents.

Palo Alto's library buildings are among the worst and most outdated in the Bay Area and they must be brought into the 21st century to meet our community's needs. The bond measure in November will rebuild and renovate our busiest libraries. Great communities deserve great libraries!

For more information, contact:
Alison Cormack, Chair
(650) 493-8475
Bern Beecham, Vice-Chair
(650) 324-1692
21st century libraries are good investment
by Bern Beecham
Palo Alto Weekly : June 11th, 2008

In an earlier opinion piece on the November library bond, Diana Diamond argued that we should cut the proposed bond measure by as much as one-third in the hope that the lower amount might more easily gain voter approval. The problem with her argument is that it assumes there is a specific amount voters are willing to spend for libraries. I think voters could reject a $10 million bond for libraries if they thought the money was going to be poorly spent. On the other hand, they have approved $100+ million bonds when they think it's a good investment for our community. After all, Palo Alto voters approved a $143 million school bond in 1995 and just approved a $378 million school bond last week.

Why do we support our schools? Because we believe that excellent schools are essential to the fabric of our community. The proposed $72 million library bond for this November — which will build a new library and community center at Mitchell Park and modernize the aging Main and Downtown branches — doesn't need "pruning" because it is by any measure a very good investment.

Modern, up-to-date libraries are as essential to Palo Alto's fabric as our excellent schools — even in the Internet age. But Palo Alto ranks dead last out of the 10 Peninsula libraries rated in a survey by the city auditor. Our facilities are cramped and dilapidated and there's not enough room to expand the collection. In spite of the Internet, Palo Altans are checking out more materials from our libraries than ever — a 45% increase in just the last six years. But our 50-year old facilities aren't big enough to handle the increase in circulation and visitors — or to meet the changing needs of our community.

The fact is, the modern library can and should be an intellectual and cultural center of our neighborhoods. It should provide meeting space that can accommodate everything from storytime for pre-schoolers ... to homework space for teens ... to work spaces for the increasing numbers of people who work from home ... to lecture spaces for authors' book talks. It should also have modern lighting and electrical outlets to allow for patrons with laptops. While we have already renovated Children's Library and will renovate College Terrace Library. Sadly, we lack these basics at Main, Mitchell Park and Downtown libraries.

Communities all over California have recognized the value of modernizing and expanding libraries, many of which were built for the Baby Boom generation in the late 1950s and 1960s. Here are just a few examples:

  • Mountain View (1997/renovated 2008)
  • City of San Jose (2000-2007)
  • Saratoga (2003)
  • City of Santa Clara (2004)
  • Cupertino (2004)
  • City of San Mateo (2006)
  • Morgan Hill (2006)
  • Milpitas (under construction now)

Spending tax money on libraries is a good investment for our future. Spending too much tax money on libraries isn't just a bad investment, it's bad judgment. And on this point, Diana Diamond had her numbers wrong. You can't compare the projected dollars that would be spent in 2009-2010 if we pass the library bond with dollars that were already spent in 2006 and 2007 on a library in San Jose. That's apples vs. oranges. A recent analysis done by city staff — all in 2008 dollars — shows that the projected cost of construction of the Mitchell Park Library and Community Center is approximately $460 per square foot. That puts it right in the middle of the five different recent Bay Area library projects studied — which range from $413 per square foot at San Jose's Santa Teresa branch to $561 per square foot for the San Mateo Library.

The proposed bond is a good value for our tax dollars. Rather than modernize our libraries with a piecemeal approach, it makes sense to fix the Main and Downtown branches at the same time as we are rebuilding Mitchell Park. Current ballpark estimates are that the average annual cost of the bond for a Palo Alto homeowner would be less than $170, (and the net cost for the majority of taxpayers who get an income tax deduction would then come down to about $110). This is a reasonable amount to pay for improving all of our libraries. There are no frills or extras proposed in this bond. City staff did a good job of sifting through the community's input to develop a solid plan to bring our remaining three libraries into the 21st century.

I hope the voters of Palo Alto will support this solid investment in November.

Bern Beecham is a former City Council member and mayor of Palo Alto. He can be e-mailed at [email protected].
Are books and libraries out of date?
by Dan Russell
Palo Alto Weekly : April 9th, 2008

One might think that holding books in a library-style building is an idea that's dead as a dodo. One would be wrong. Books and magazines and everything that's made from ink marks on crushed tree pulp might seem to be fading into the dust of history before the sweeping broom of technology.

But before you consign your parents' copies of Twain, Milton and Shakespeare to the recycling bin, consider that you can still read them without a moment's hesitation. Can you still play back your parents' 45-rpm vinyl records? They were once the height of 1950s media technology, yet now it's hard to find one, much less find a way to play it. One of the glorious features of a book is that it is pretty much future-proof. While your parents' 45s might be available as MP3s through on online service, there is a vast array of things not captured into a digital form.

Although I work at an Internet company, and constantly use online book and content access technology in all aspects of my life, I continually reflect on the place of libraries in our society, especially here in Palo Alto, where we create the future. Here are some of my thoughts about our local libraries--I welcome your feedback and comments:

Libraries are generally defined as book containers, pieces of architecture that house media, a few reference desks and librarians — but in fact they're much more. As an institution, libraries have evolved with the times. Originally they housed texts for reading by the cultural elite. In Benjamin Franklin's time, when a single book might cost as much as a year's wages, books were protected by libraries and access was severely limited — that's one reason he came up with the idea of a public lending library.

Further back, a book in Medieval Europe (often hand-copied by monks) was literally priceless for the average person. Only the wealthy in ancient Rome had private libraries of books and scrolls. But like any successful institution that persists for hundreds of years, libraries change with the times to fit local demands. With the mass democratization and popularity of books for the populace following the 16th century invention of the printing press, libraries came to be places where students, scholars and just plain readers could come to learn about the latest ideas as well as to the literary classics and reference materials, all in a single place and available for free. Public libraries in particular have always been a place for learners of every age to be immersed in a world of knowledge that is much larger than what they could possibly have at home.

"Ah, but the Internet changes all that!" I hear you cry.

Perhaps, although almost certainly not in the ways you might expect. Yes, many books are available online, and the ways we can now look up and cross-index texts and content are marvelous. But libraries continue to evolve as well. If you've been to one of our local public libraries, you'll quickly see that they're full of people reading, writing, working together in small groups with books, papers, laptop computers, backpacks and magazines strewn all over in a creative chaos. If everything becomes available online, why do people still come to the library?

A few quick answers: There is still a huge value in having a collection of standard references quickly and easily available in paper — meaning no boot-up time, and no peering through a screen of limited size, no charge-per-page downloaded. Another great library benefit is the staff of professional librarians who know a great deal about the contents of the information world they inhabit. They can help the reader, writer, scholar or student find what they really need.

While search is relatively easy, there is still a great deal of knowledge needed to negotiate the ins and outs of complex information spaces. The Internet boosts a library's reach and collection, it doesn't negate its reason for being. If anything, there's an even greater need for individuals and institutions that can guide the searcher to understand what is authoritative, and provide a core collection of materials.

Finally, there is space to work with colleagues and friends. A clear table top, reference materials, a safe space and access to a world of information — it's the place to be if you're studying as student or adult learner, either alone or in a small group. This might not be one's typical idea of a library, but it's what libraries have become — places where information is available, not just sitting on shelves, but in hands and under eyes, with places to work and people to help in the process of accessing and understanding an increasingly complex world.

Libraries are not dusty collections of texts from a past age but vital, living expressions of an information world that's in constant change. They provide a physical manifestation of the worlds of textual possibility in a place that is safe, organized and open to everyone. We need our libraries, and Palo Alto, as a place of scholarship and bastion of open access for all, needs an especially good library system.

Dan Russell is a 25-year resident of Palo Alto, living in Midtown and working at a large Web search company. He writes extensively on technology issues for both technical and popular audiences. He and his wife Lynne (a member of the Palo Alto Library Foundation) have been library advocates since they could both read. He can be e-mailed at [email protected].
Palo Alto's long debate on library branches is history - let's move ahead
by Alison Cormack
Palo Alto Weekly : January 9th, 2008

Welcome to 2008, the year that Palo Alto finally gets its libraries right. I am delighted that the final library proposal will soon come before the City Council. Here's why I care so much about our libraries: I work on this issue every day because I love to read books and I think our libraries are embarrassing.

The schools, parks, trees and recreational services this city provides are superb. Our libraries should offer the same high-quality experience. Libraries are the most fundamental and democratic of our city services, serving toddlers, seniors, English-language learners, teens, book-club members, people who work at home and anyone who walks in the door. In fact, over 2,000 people use our libraries every day of the year because they offer learning for life.

Here's what's going on at our five libraries:

  • Children's Library, which was too small and dilapidated, has been expanded and updated.
  • The College Terrace branch, which has seismic problems and needs an overall uplift, is scheduled to be fixed in 2008-2009.
  • The Downtown Library needs more public space and to be refreshed.
  • Main Library has poor lighting and ventilation and there is no space for studying or for community programs or events. It needs to be renovated and should offer study rooms and a modest-sized space for public events.
  • Mitchell Park branch has a third of the space it needs for the use it gets and half the number of books. The adjacent community center is shabby and poorly arranged. The most cost-effective solution is to build a new, combined library and community center with enough space for books, people and programs.

Here's the truth about the branch debate: That ship has sailed. The Council isn't going to close branches and even if it did that wouldn't free up nearly enough money to fix our two primary libraries, Main and Mitchell. Proposals to have one large library have failed. Requests to guarantee the branches' existence in perpetuity have failed. So that leaves us with a balanced, reasonable approach: fix the five libraries we have and use every day.

In my role as president of the Palo Alto Library Foundation, I am pleased to see the community discussion shifting from how many to what kind of libraries we have. If you have not visited Children's Library to see what a library with enough space for books and people, plenty of light and decent restrooms feels like, stop by 1276 Harriet Ave.

If you have not visited Mitchell Park library at 3700 Middlefield Road, you cannot understand the challenge we face there by reading this or any other article. More than 1,000 people per day use Mitchell Park Library — it has the highest circulation of any of our five branches. Yet it is less than 10,000 square feet and was built 50 years ago. The visitors shift over the day with seniors and pre-schoolers predominating in the morning, older children arriving after school and everyone there in the evening.

While you're there, stop by the community center to see the dilapidated, uninspiring environment used by so many of our young people. Then imagine the possibilities of a courtyard arrangement around the big oak tree. The new community center will be able to host weddings, plays, senior lunches, classes and civic functions just as the facility at Lucie Stern Community Center offers a wide variety of spaces in northern Palo Alto.

I get lots of questions about the libraries and current plans. As I try to answer them, I find it helps to know what people care about. For the history buff, our library system is a centenarian. It was established with the help of major benefactors such as Andrew Carnegie and "Aunt Lucie" Stern and found community support when a bond passed to build our two primary libraries, Main and Mitchell, which both opened in 1958 — the year after Fairchild Semiconductor was founded.

Think about what has changed in the world and our city in those 50 years and realize that our libraries have stayed virtually the same. Are you a numbers person? Our circulation in Palo Alto libraries has increased 45 percent since 2000. Libraries are NOT going away because of the Internet. Books and information are still inextricably linked and in high demand, right here in Silicon Valley.

Do you care about the environment? The new construction at Mitchell Park Library and Community Center is planned to be certified at the LEED silver level, meaning it will incorporate many "green" features such as porous concrete paving, a vegetated roof, photovoltaics and a ground-source heat pump in a building designed to harvest daylight and conserve water.

For those interested in the local political process, the current expansion/refurbishing plan is an issue we can all support. It's been studied by the Library Advisory Commission (LAC), worked on diligently by staff and architects, reinforced by the primary finding of the city auditor's report, and applauded by the Architecture Review Board. And, it is supported by all three library groups: the LAC, the Palo Alto Library Foundation and the Friends of the Palo Alto Library.

We are at a crossroads with a golden opportunity to achieve improvements across the city and across the generations. I am mindful that the school district, the Art Center, the Junior Museum & Zoo and other local entities face similar facilities issues. Much of Palo Alto was built in the 1950s and many of our civic buildings are long past their useful lives. We must find the means to repair and replace these buildings that are the foundation of our high quality of life, as we have so successfully done with Children's Library and, a decade earlier, the Lucie Stern Community Center.

We are fortunate to live in a community that has the resources to make these necessary upgrades. I firmly believe that now is the time to get our libraries right for the next generation. I welcome your comments, questions and suggestions.

Alison Cormack is the new president of the Palo Alto Library Foundation. She is a 10-year resident of Palo Alto and lives in the Palo Verde neighborhood with her husband and two children. She can be e-mailed at [email protected]
Website by Hochberg Photography & Design - Logo and Print Work by Kris Loew