Magazine article American Libraries

A Triumph of Community Support: San Francisco's New Main Library

Magazine article American Libraries

A Triumph of Community Support: San Francisco's New Main Library

Article excerpt


When the San Francisco Main Library was declared filled to capacity in 1944, the magnificent edifice that was to take its place was not even a dream. But thanks to the persistent efforts of a visionary brand of library devotees, San Francisco will open a spacious new high-tech, environmentally sound building Apr. 18. The facility will be filled with books, flooded with light and open space, and distinguished by an aura of welcome and graciousness for all.

The dream took different forms for different people:

* For City Librarian Ken Dowlin, the new Main would be a technologically advanced, state-of-the-art library wired for the twenty-first century, a showplace where miles of shelf space devoted to collections would meet cyberspace.

* For Library Foundation President Marjorie Stern, the new Main was a passion that took her nearly 40 years of dedication and hard work to realize--a commitment gratefully acknowledged in the dedication to a book published this month to commemorate the opening (see p. 46).

* For Main Library Chief Kathy Page, the library would be filled with vital, varied collections and provide resources for in-depth research, as well as more appropriate quarters for staff.

* For Friends Director Margie O'Driscoll, the entire system would be properly funded before opening day.

* For Library Foundation Director Sherry Thomas, the building would be furnished and equipped in a manner respectful of the wishes of the people.

* For architects Cathy Simon and James Ingo Freed, the building would be full of light and open space, with bridges serving as metaphorical connections to knowledge and learning.

* Library Commission President Steve Coulter envisioned the most democratic of all institutions, a place that would be open and accessible to all.

A library for the people was a sentiment universally echoed. Community participation is the hallmark of San Francisco, and nothing embodies that empowerment better than the new Main Library. Advocates started to lay the groundwork more than 30 years ago, forming the Friends of the Library to rally support for programs and secure the site. Eight years ago, following budget cuts and threats of branch library closings, 77% of the voters reaffirmed their support and trust in the institution by approving a $109.5-million bond measure, $104.5 million of which was designated for a new Main Library and the remaining $5 million to seismically renovate the branches.

While the 1988 bond measure funded construction costs, activists had larger ambitions. Not only was the new Main to be a beautifully designed and well-constructed building, but the interior finishes and furnishings, which could not be paid for with bond funds, would equal the facility in which they were housed. In addition, San Francisco voters had expectations not only of a library filled with books and other materials, but also of a technologically advanced institution that would be poised to deliver information in the latest cutting-edge formats.

Today, over 17,000 individuals and organizations have joined that core of library supporters and activists and donated over $30 million to furnish and equip the new Main Library, thanks to the efforts of the Library Foundation of San Francisco, which was formed in 1987.

Though hundreds of thousands of people use and cherish the San Francisco Public Library, there were many challenges and uphill battles to be fought for funding. SFPL had no substantial donor base at the start of the Library Foundation's Main Campaign. The Main Library was built during a time of economic recession and, throughout the system, service hours and the materials budget were being cut every year. By reducing needed services, the library was not only running the danger of losing its base of support at this most critical of times, but also of having its supporters divided and at odds with one another over the needs of the new Main Library versus the need to maintain services in the 26-branch system. …

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