Facing the future of our libraries 

They came in earnest, this delegation from The City’s library system, concerned that reports of a shortfall reaching $50 million could torpedo their expansion program, or at least the public’s goodwill. Voters in 2000 approved the $106 million bond initiative, which launched a construction project in multiple neighborhoods including renovations, remodeling and, where necessary, brand new facilities. Last month’s reports of cost overruns were bound to draw concern, if not fire.

We ourselves found our credulity taxed when library officials blamed extreme inflation for the startling financial gap. General inflation, as any economist will testify, for more than a decade has come in at negligible levels, a major factor in the country’s continuing growth. And yet, we were prepared to recognize that some pockets of the economy, such as construction, might have an inflationary tale to tell. Library Commission President Charles Higueras offered just such an account, reasonably convincing, that over the last six years building materials flew to the vast constructions projects in Asia, mainland China specifically, thereby propelling costs into the stratosphere.

So what are San Franciscans to make of the high-minded communitarian effort they set in motion as the new century dawned? They will, for starters, observe some retrenchment. Already, five branch projects have been postponed, as library officials exercise the necessary discipline. And it may well be that, as citizens and as urban planners, we should accustom ourselves to something less than the Cadillac of bookworm gathering places.

In hindsight, it’s safe to conclude that voters were over-promised, so often a trademark of political initiatives that ask them to finance glimmering projects of this nature. The library delegation, which included City Librarian Luis Herrera, candidly described something like mission creep. Where once libraries were seen as storehouses of information, venues of reading and research, they now, according to the project’s overseers, must be considered community centers — especially in neighborhoods that have watched civic institutions disappear.

A pleasing sentiment, that, especially to urban visionaries who can coax taxpayers to fund it. But the suspicion arises that some proponents of the library’s expansion might, just might, have been counting on additional funding from Sacramento or even Washington — a habit The City will need to break even if it does know powerful people in both places. In any case, what is most needed now is a sober return to a definition of the library’s business.

The Examiner wants the library project to succeed, especially in left-behind neighborhoods. But the nature of the book business in the midst of the information revolution, with its mega-booksellers and Web access to the great libraries of civilization, means that even the costliest bricks and mortar can be returned to the shelves marked "History."

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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