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What should a library be?

The San Francisco Public Library.
"Your Tax Dollars at Work" by flikr user Thomas Hawk used under CC license. Resized and cropped.


In the Berkeley Public Library last year, Board of Trustees Meetings were packed with library users who showed up to defend the library’s books.

“I want a return to the way the library used to be. They now bore me, and terrify me,” one speaker said.

The Berkeley Public Library interim library director at the time decided to remove thousands of books from the shelves. In the library world, that’s actually called “book weeding.”  Books that hadn’t been checked out for three years were removed. And that didn’t sit well with some Berkeley residents.

“We deserve better than that. Berkeley does. Our kids do. The country does,” another speaker said.

What’s a library?

Since then, the Berkeley Library Director resigned, and a new director was appointed. But this flare-up raised the question for Berkeley that many others have had to wrestle with: what is the purpose of a library?

The Redwood Library, said to be the first lending library in America, officially opened in 1750. The Redwood Library’s guiding principle was, “having nothing in view but the good of mankind.”  

And maintaining the good of mankind, to this library, meant lots of books. They stocked books on beekeeping, lantern building, and cider making. And for over a century, a library was defined by books.

The Library Users Association

But, that’s not the case at the San Francisco Public Library. In 2014, only 10 percent of the library’s budget went to books. Like in Berkeley, some library-goers are mad about the way this library treats books. One of them is Peter Warfield.

“There's a symbolism to where the books are located, as far as I'm concerned. They are pushed to the very periphery of the building.”

Warfield started a group called the Library Users Association in the 90s, after thousands of library books were tossed when the new main branch was built. He tried to show me an article about that in an old New Yorker...but we couldn't find it.

Many of the bound periodicals were moved to make room for a new literacy and learning center. Warfield doesn’t appreciate the other things the library offers, like a social worker to help the many homeless visitors, or job services.

“For people to get a job, why don't they provide telephones? And a haberdashery for them to get a suit and a tie and a nice pair of shoes?” Warfield jokes. “There's a lot that could be done, but it's not the mission of the library.”

Inside SFPL’s Teen Center

Peter Warfield believes the library’s mission should be to provide reading material. Period, end of story. Teen Librarian Mary Abler sees it differently.

“What we're doing here at The Mix is really just the first step of the whole evolution of how libraries are growing,” Abler said.

The Mix is the library’s teen center, located on the 2nd floor of the public library’s main branch. It opened last summer. At The Mix, teens can make music, learn to code, and even make things with a 3-D printer. Abler tells me that lots of teens who come here don’t like reading, and that’s not so bad.

“I do believe that all that we provide, be it digital music production, or poetry reading, or 2-D animation, or 3-D printing is all engaging kids in different kinds of literacies, whether it’s traditional literacies or digital literacies,” she said.   

She says The Mix is attracting people who would never otherwise think to set foot in a library at all. Like teenager Lauren Ng.

“I don’t like reading books. It’s the truth,” she said.

But she does like The Mix. Lots of teens do. Not just for the music lab or 3-D printers, but as a place to just hang out — which is exactly what Abler and the library wants.

“What we are hoping to do is create a space where you can engage collaboratively and be exposed to different ways of thinking,” Abler said. "I feel like this is a big trend, in the way libraries are going.”

The Mechanic’s Institute keeps tradition alive

Libraries as collaborative spaces is not a new idea - places like The Mechanic’s Institute Library and Chess Room in downtown San Francisco have been spaces for book lovers and the book ambivalent to meet for centuries.

“It was founded when the Gold Rush was coming to an end and people were trying to imagine how they could rebuild a community and rebuild a society that was really suffering,” Ralph Lewin, the Executive Director for the Mechanic’s Institute, said.

It’s one of the oldest libraries on the West Coast. In those days, a mechanic could be anyone who made something. Poets, for instance, could be mechanics. The Mechanics Institute was formed as a place where people could exchange ideas and collaborate.

“So I think what we're seeing, at least for the Mechanic’s Institute, is a return to those values and mission,” Lewin said.

Now it’s still a collaborative space, and the institute rents rooms to different San Francisco literary organizations.

Libraries, beyond books

“There's value in books. But the mission related to knowledge and communities, and that's broader than books. Thinking about how we can best be places where people come together and learn and access information and knowledge, that's broader than books,” Lewin said.  

So...what is a library? If we learned anything, it’s that there’s no one answer. Some think libraries should be the book keepers. For others, they’re a space to be loud and play with 3-D printers. Some just want a space to meet and collaborate with other people. What’s clear is that libraries, whether focused on books or not, continue to be important spaces for people who want to learn.