San Francisco Public Library
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Wall of Library Heroes

Box 2

The New Main Controversy

The San Francisco Public Library is a popular institution and the dramatic differences between the old and New Main buildings thrill many but startle others. San Francisco becomes the focus of a national debate on books, technology and the role of libraries in the 21st Century.

The Criticism: The exterior design is too modern, there is too much open space inside and the layout is confusing. There is not enough bookshelf space for an expanding collection and the aggressive weeding of the collection for the move into the New Main was because the new space was not big enough. There is too much emphasis on technology, particularly computers and the new electronic card catalog. The old card catalog, though out of date, has information not available on the electronic catalog. Private fundraising is bad for a public institution and the City should provide greater taxpayer support.

The Praise: The New Main succeeds against the odds and is an inspiring civic presence. Private fundraising is necessary and thousands of San Franciscans gave generously, furnishing the building and expanding collections, in one of the most successful campaigns in American library history. The open space and natural light replace a gloomy, odiferous, inefficient old Main. The New Main has many important green building features and provides easy access and new services for people with disabilities. Technology, particularly the popular new electronic card catalog and web site, bring the library into the 21st Century. The new collections better reflect the diversity of the City.

The Library Commission votes to maintain the old card catalog in the basement as a historical resource.

The media covers the debate:

The Mayor calls for a neutral third party audit to study some of the issues and cool tempers. Several suggestions to improve the building are adopted. An Examiner editorial gives this advice to all sides in this sometimes shrill debate: “Shush!”