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 The old card catalog, though out of date, has information not available on the electronic catalog.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:

  • “It will grow on us,” writes the U.S. Poet Laureate in the Chronicle about the outside of the building, adding that “inside...is a marvel, so deeply delicious you forget your previous ideas of what a library is.”
  • “An ugly modern shopping mall” fumes a critic of the building in a newspaper article.
  • A "Mall for the Mind" writes Newsweek.
  • “A Wonderment to Discover” for people with disabilities writes the World Institute on Disabilities.
  • “The curves and twists of stairs around the rotunda are enough to make a person dizzy,” rages one letter in the Examiner.
  • “A dynamic, light-filled space as inviting as it is joyous” writes Art in America.
  • “A Trojan horse concealing an invasion force of private interests,” writes a critic.
  • “Room for Imagination in a Temple of Reason” headlines the New York Times architectural review.

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!”