Magazine article American Libraries

A Couple of Codicils about San Francisco

Magazine article American Libraries

A Couple of Codicils about San Francisco

Article excerpt

Walt Crawford says some very sensible things in his recent meditation, "The Card Catalog and Other Digital Controversies," (AL, Jan., p. 52-58). I was flattered to discover myself likened to a "shaggy beast from the forgotten past." At the risk of further beastliness, I would like to add a couple of codicils to his article.

Crawford says that I made "questionable claims about the dereliction to the book collection" of the San Francisco Public Library. My claim was that during the tenure of Kenneth Dowlin (city librarian from 1987 until 1997), the library discarded over 200,000 books. If anything, that number is overly cautious; it understates the severity of the damage the library sustained. It is based on the best estimates of librarians and other staff members who worked at the library and who saw city DPW trucks full of books regularly drive off to the dump. There were two periods of extremely heavy and indiscriminate weeding: one just after the earthquake in 1987, and one in 1995-1996, prompted by the panic-stricken, eleventh-hour revelation that the new building didn't have the capacity to hold the existing collection.

My article in the New Yorker offered estimates and not hard numbers, because unfortunately estimates were what I had to work with. The library's automation services department deleted all but the last "Purge of Items Declared Withdrawn" report from its file server, and apparently kept no backups. Still, that last 1996 purge report (which I had to sue the library in order to download) is plenty chilling on its own. In it are approximately 140,000 books, and 19,000 of them represent the last copy of an edition in the library system at the time it was removed. No "routine library procedure" sort of justification can possibly explain why my random scroll through the last-copy discard list, incomplete as it is, would rum up titles like Bennett Cerf's Reading for Pleasure, Hugo Grotius's Freedom of the Seas in a 1916 Oxford University Press edition, Victor Hugo's Actes et Paroles in a 19th-century multivolume Quantin edition, The Natives of Northern India (1907), and A Child's Garden of Verses for the Revolution (Grove Press, 1970). All these books are now gone from the library. The 164th numbered copy (out of 400) of a Chiswick Press edition of the works of Thomas Campion, published in 1889, is in the Purge Report, because the book was processed for discard, but it was one of thousands saved at the last minute by the rearguard action of several heroic librarians.

A small fortune squandered

The library has still not complied with a legal request to furnish memos and reports relating to the 1995-96 weeding. Staff members forwarded me e-mail from the then-chief of the Main Library, Kathy Page, to her department heads, saying that she was preparing to supply the relevant "documentation [they] have on file" - but it was never sent. Perhaps it was destroyed. Had the library not thrown it away, The Dynamics of Bureaucracy by Peter Blau might have offered some insight into the ongoing effort to cover up what went on.

Dowlin himself is gone, but Page, who was responsible for the worst of the weeding directives, is still consulting for the library. Steven Coulter, who, as head of the (non-elective) Library Commission, oversaw the whole building debacle, is still determining library policy. Coulter is also a senior executive at Pacific Bell, a major vendor to the library. …

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