The end of the library (as we know it?)

Ralph Lewin, executive director of the Mechanics' Institute, photo courtesy of the Sacramento Bee.

Ralph Lewin at the Mechanics’ Institute, photo courtesy of the Sacramento Bee.

A few months ago, San Francisco’s venerable Mechanics’ Institute hosted a discussion titled “The End of the Library (As We Know It)?”

As the oldest library in the city of San Francisco, the Mechanics’ Institute founded in 1854 and opened a year later with a grand total of four books, a chess room, and a mission to offer vocational education to out-of-work gold miners. (The San Francisco Public Library was founded more than two decades later, in 1879.) As one of the oldest libraries in the state, the Mechanics’ was a fitting place for this discussion.

I care deeply about what happens to our local libraries. I’m the proud holder of library cards in San Francisco, Marin, Napa, and Palo Alto. I recently renewed my membership in the independent Mechanics Institute, where I’ve been invited to speak about my books over the years. I regularly visit U.C. Berkeley’s libraries for research and also volunteer as a member of its Council of Friends of the Bancroft Library.

Libraries play a crucial role in supporting our democracy, encouraging the free flow of information, and as a much-needed non-commercial oasis. As Ralph Lewin, the Mechanics’ Institute’s executive director, told me recently, the fastest growing segment of his organization’s new membership is under 40 years old. Some tell him that they joined the Mechanics’ because it feels like an authentic institution that represents the soul of San Francisco. I’d agree with that.

In a city where there seems to be an ever deepening divide between the haves and the have-nots, libraries remain one of the few places where people of different ages, experiences, and backgrounds come together to discuss ideas. That, in itself, is a powerful argument for supporting our libraries at a time when public discourse has become increasingly fraught.

The discussion on libraries is an example of that and you can watch it on YouTube. But because I’m a bit of a library geek, I also took notes, which I’m sharing with you here. It was an all-star gathering of some of the country’s leading thinkers on libraries and is well worth watching. But if you don’t have the time, here’s my summary as well as some links to library resources.

Moderated by Ralph Lewin (RL), the panel included Susan Hildreth (SH), executive director of the Peninsula Library System and previously President Obama’s Director of the Institute for Museum and Library Services, Luis Herrera (LH), San Francisco’s City Librarian and a board member of the Digital Public Library of America, Deborah Hunt (DH), Library director of the Mechanics’ Institute, and Greg Lucas (GL), State Librarian of California.

Here are some of the highlights from my edited notes on the discussion, with the speakers identified by their initials.

Spiral staircase at the Mechanics' Institute

Spiral staircase at the Mechanics’ Institute

RL: “Is the library a relic? And what’s happening at the San Francisco Public Library these days?

LH: The idea that libraries are a relic is highly exaggerated. We’re thriving. We’re renovating eight new buildings. We’ve got close to 7 million visitors each year. Our circulation is about 10.6 million items borrowed, about half of that e-media, which saw a 50% increase last year.

GL – As state librarian, my job is spreading the good word and listening to people. People love libraries so much they don’t think they are part of government. We see immigrant families coming into libraries – know nothing bad will happen to them there and someone there will help them with their issues. You see filled rows of computer terminals – a high percentage of people still don’t have Internet access at home. Remember – it was a big idea at the time when the Internet first took off that people wouldn’t need libraries anymore. Instead, we’ve seen libraries quickly adapt.

SH – The Gates Foundation decided to sunset their investment in libraries. Gates helped fun Aspen Institute’s report on library: “Rising to the Challenge: Re-envisioning Libraries.” One of the key ideas from report is that libraries remain an important platform for community and individual development.

DH – I’m often asked “why do we need librarians when have Google search?” She holds up a copy of the “Badass Librarians of Timbuktu,” a new nonfiction book by Joshua Hammer on the librarians’ race to save precious manuscripts from destruction. “Sadly, the “l” word has become very stereotyped…. I don’t tell people that I’m a librarian (mimes yawning) and instead I tell people that I am a strategic information professional!”

LH: Libraries are among the most democratic institutions. We welcome everyone. We serve everyone from a research scholar to a new immigrant. When the idea of us working with public health department came us, we said, why not? Libraries are also a focal point for civic dialogue. SFPL has half a million people attending its functions. We play an important role in encouraging civic engagement and and as a community hub.

RL: (Question to Greg Lucas, a former journalist.) “You covered politics for a long time. How do libraries fit in?”

GL: They’re part of local government, usually in the general fund expense. The general fund is fairly small and fairly prescribed. In places where libraries aren’t valued, there’s some debate over whether to fund public safety vs. libraries. (But I’d argue) the library is the happiest face a city or county can put on itself. Libraries have to get out and demonstrate their value to the community. Some libraries have contracts with the county to do literacy classes in county jail. It’s a whole lot tougher then for sheriff to throw library under the bus (in terms of funding) when working together, adding a film reference, “It’s Chinatown, Jake.”

DH: I think libraries are the most democratic institutions we have.

GL: We talk about how libraries are engines of economic development – we often have someone coming in and asking a librarian to review a resume.

Q: Last week, while looking through microfilm at the SFPL’s main branch, I overheard a librarian handling a difficult client – perhaps a homeless person. How do you support your librarians in addition to the social worker you have on staff at the main branch?

LH: Incidents have dropped dramatically over the past year and a half, in part because partnering with the San Francisco Police Department and social service agencies. Also, we’ve set some limits and expectations about behavior – after that, there are consequences.



  1. Thanks, Julia, for such positive feedback. I love working here and grateful you are a member!

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