Losing track of the library’s money 

Public libraries. The very thought of them conjures up a delicious secret about learning: They are free-form universities for the self-educated, the best of America’s egalitarian spirit since Gilded Age industrialist Andrew Carnegie financed their proliferation throughout the country. They are an essential part of the nation’s intellectual fabric.

One thinks of San Francisco’s "longshoreman philosopher" Eric Hoffer, his eyesight regained as a young man, voraciously reading whatever interested him as he sat at a table in the downtown library. Then there’s California’s great imaginative writer Ray Bradbury, on record as preferring time spent amid the library shelves over dull hours in the classroom. Our affection for these special places of mental stimulation runs deep.

So imagine our distress when it’s reported that an ambitious $141 million program to expand and renovate The City’s library system has fallen far behind its schedule, which sets its completion date in 2009. Worse, though the building plan was to have been substantially funded by the $106 million bond approved by voters in 2000, cost overruns threaten to reach $50 million. That’s a staggering sum, and library officials owe voters a far more detailed accounting than blaming rising construction costs and vague "worldwide economic forces," as the president of the Public Library Commission argued in a letter published here Tuesday.

To be sure, large competitive factors associated with the information economy do militate against traditional libraries. The mega-booksellers, with their inviting overstuffed chairs, designer coffees and discount prices, cater to readers of modest enough means. As well, the Internet has proved the greatest boon to accessible knowledge since the ancient Alexandria library was built to advance the civilization of the Nile.

Still, even the most consumer-friendly bookstore or intuitive Web site cannot organize knowledge as comprehensively as trained practitioners of library science. What public libraries perform for society — especially for the most disadvantaged neighborhoods — should remain constant. That was the voters’ clear intention. Has their determination to create such indebtedness for these ideals been abused?

Those voters, after all, allocated financing to a specific building project that is for now immune to commercial competition. There may be reasons that the cited construction costs, perhaps even organized labor costs, have outpaced inflation (almost nonexistent for these six years), but those costs alone do not solve the mystery of where the money went. This may indeed be a case of well-intentioned people lacking the competence to track those dollars.

Sadly, the library’s waste echoes the Recreation and Park case in which voters the same year approved a similar bond only to watch as city officials lost track of comparable sums. Is there a decent accounting text in one of the branches that some unknown autodidact can find, reading which he or she can restore the libraries’ integrity? Apparently, we can’t trust The City to do it.

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Staff Report

Staff Report

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