The Making of the San Francisco Library Movement
Chapter Three: Civil Rights, a Literary Renaissance - and still no new Main Library
Defeated in his attempt to build a new Main Library, Librarian Holman drew on the civil rights activism pulsating on the streets in the late 1960s and took the library directly to the people. Librarians went door-to-door, familiarizing residents with library services in English, Spanish, Chinese, and Tagalog, visited community centers and housing projects, and even distributed free books on the street. Effie Lee Morris sent the first bookmobile to the Bayview. Simultaneously, community rooms were added to the Chinatown Branch, and Friends raised money for collections and a bibliographic study of African-Americans in the West. The SFPL also received federal funding from the Economic Opportunity Act for its fledging Jobs and Careers program for the unemployed.
San Francisco was an epicenter of a literary and artistic renaissance with prominent fiction writers calling San Francisco home - John Steinbeck, Dashiell Hammett, William Saroyan, and historians and essayists Wallace Stegner, Oscar Lewis, and Irving Stone. Poetry thrived throughout North Beach coffeehouses, making household names of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti, and bringing to prominence racially diverse, queer, and women writers, such as Kay Boyle, Tillie Olsen, Diane DiPrima, Jade Snow Wong, and subsequently, Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Isabel Allende, and Alice Walker.
San Francisco needed a Library as big and vibrant as the city around it. But that did not happen. A new Librarian, John Anderson, arrived from Tuscon in 1968, where he had successfully doubled the library budget and expanded its staff seven-fold. He described the SFPL as the "worst metropolitan library in the country," judging that the Main library should get a new building. He set the tone for his tenure by declaring that the library should accept its "special relationship to the people in this changing city who do not have educational and cultural advantages."
When Joseph Alioto began his mayoral term in 1970, things looked hopeful. Known for his obsession for redevelopment, he was politically adept and well-connected in Washington DC. He secured a $115 million HUD grant for preliminary planning of a new building in Marshal Square, which produced a report condemning the Main Library as grossly inadequate. It also advised against floating a bond measure to build a new library that might not pass with the voters. Despite the warning, Friends pursued placing a bond measure on the ballot with the blessing of Alito and the City Administrator. When the citizens' bond review committee rejected the measure, the Friends' board, with great debate, voted to postpone its efforts until 1974.
The window then closed quickly as the US and California turned to austerity in the face of economic hard times. Alioto declared a hiring freeze in 1971, and the Library Commission recommended the closure of five branches in 1972. Richard Nixon cut national library funding in 1973. Librarian Anderson resigned and was replaced by Kevin Starr, the only City Librarian (of no minor controversy) to not have a professional library degree. The final blow came in 1978 when Californians passed Proposition 13, again derailing Friends' plans for a bond measure and sending public institutions into a long era of perpetual budget cuts.
Throughout this period, Friends continued to stage protests, lobby city hall, and support the efforts of various City Librarians to fund the construction of a new Main. Increasingly sidelined by other interests in the city power structure, Friends got creative.
Historical data cited from A Free Library in the City, by Peter Booth Wiley. Photos credited to the SFPL History Center.
Did You Know?
Tall, lanky, and with a drawl from out of town (Galveston, Texas), William Holman assumed the City Librarian's position in 1960. Impressed by the plethora of bookstores, Holman told a reporter, "San Francisco is a bookish, unique city… and it certainly doesn't deserve a third-rate library." He found the Main Library at civic center gloomy, dirty, smelly, technologically out of date. At its lowest point in 1959, only 1,500 books had been checked out, down from 12,000.
In his first appearance before the Library Commission, Holman requested an emergency appropriation to fix an enormous backlog in cataloging and was told to wait for the city budget cycle a year later. His first encounter with the Board of Supervisor was not encouraging. His request for funds to hire nine additional Librarians was met by a scoffing Supervisor who yelled out, "that's welfare!" Holman ultimately won a small increase, insufficient to prevent the closure of all libraries on Sundays.
Holman walked out of City Hall to find two citizen groups rumored to be organizing for library improvements: San Francisco for a Better Library and Friends of the Library that were in the process of merging. A meeting hosted at the home of Mortimer and Janet Fleishhacker brought the groups together, along with the Blyth-Zellerbach Committee, a business coalition shaping San Francisco's redevelopment efforts, to finalize the creation of a single organization with a list of founding sponsors, including Walter Haas, Nion Tucker, Ms. Dean Whitter, and the Zellerbach, Bransten, Follis, Schwabacher, and Gerbode families.
In 1966, Margaret Mayer, who had joined the public library cause through volunteering at Friends' book sales, was hired as the first paid Executive Director. Friends first fundraising efforts furnished a new Rare Book Room, provided uniforms for security guards, and established a scholarship fund for librarians. Margaret Mayer and Board members Mary Louise Stong and Marjorie Stern were unified in the belief that the grassroots citizenry, not just the elite, must join the library movement. They committed themselves to publicize the library's dire budgetary situation and to build a grassroots membership organization for advocacy support. Ms. Stern later reflected, "What is really needed to make our library system an excellent one is solid citizen support. We tried hard to get out in the community for support for every section of the population. We believe that every citizen has a responsibility to the library."
The desire to fight for a reformed public library went well beyond its new leader and his alliance with the newly formed Friends. The Librarians started a revolution from within, with Librarians making smart and significant changes with flat budgets. Among the leaders was Effie Lee Morris (more info), a nationally recognized children's librarian from the New York Public Library who served as the SFPL's first-ever Children's Services Coordinator. With predominantly female leadership, the adult services department was created under Harriet Collopy, technical services and cataloging under Vivian Goodwin, branches under Mary Moses, and the Main under Avis Stopple. Collections were reorganized more strategically by interest, 100,000s of books previously held behind reference desks were shelved for accessible public browsing, and the Business and Science Department opened.
Inadequate budgets still limited progress, but the coalition of Friends and the SFPL began to make headway with a steady and coordinated strategy. Librarian Holman figured out that he was more likely to obtain budget allocations from city hall when he sent a series of small requests instead of large annual requests. When he made a budget request, he alerted Friends, who mobilized its members to visit city hall to publicly and loudly back the requests. By 1965, this strategy paid off when the book-buying budget was raised from $381,000 to $500,000. By 1967, the overall Library budget was double was it had been in 1961.
Historical data cited from A Free Library in the City, by Peter Booth Wiley. Photos credited to the SFPL History Center.
Coming in March, Chapter Three: SFPL in 1960s.
Read Chapter 1 here.
The Making of the San Francisco Library Movement: Part 1
San Francisco is not just lucky to have a world-class Library. We created the conditions to make it exceptional.
To celebrate our 60th year, we present a special series in the newsletter recalling our history, honoring our legacy of advocacy, and inspiring us to pursue our next chapter. The San Francisco Public Library was not always a great Library. It was rather bad. Friends story is about community members, famous and not so famous, who decided to make our Library exceptional and worked hard over decades to do just that. For 60 years, people like you and me fought for, funded, and valued our most democratic and equitable public institution, creating the miracle we now enjoy. It is a history we continue to write. - Marie Ciepiela, Executive Director, Friends of the SFPL
Let's go back to 1957 when Hale Champion, San Francisco Chronicle reporter, wrote a scathing editorial claiming that so many things went wrong for so many years that the SFPL was "nationally ill-famed". The first branch was built in the Mission District during an expansionist era under Mayor James Rolph, reached an unprecedented level of use during the Great Depression, and expanded by eight branches care of a small number of wealthy patrons by 1963. But by the late 1960s, the Library system was stressed beyond its capacity and lagged far behind the literary world flowering around it. Mayor Joseph Alioto (1967-1971) vowed to make the Library a budget priority but struggled to make that happen. The public took notice, and a few brave women decided to take action.
The Friends of the San Francisco Public Library was founded in 1961 by determined, civic-minded young people who refused to accept San Francisco's mediocre library. Three young women emerged as leaders, laboring for decades without assistance from the elected political establishment to build a constituency that would become Friends' membership. Known as the "three Ms", they were Margaret Mayer, Mary Loise Stong, and Marjorie Stern. Against growing income polarization and a decline of civic investment in public resources, they captured a growing national library activism movement. They set the course for San Francisco's historic public investment decades later.
Greetings! We miss you, and we miss our Library. Communicating and connecting is so important right now and we hope our regular newsletters and emails have kept you informed about the status of the San Francisco Public Library and of Friends. We write today with a positive message: The Library is resilient; Friends is sustaining itself strategically; and the partnership is prepared for the future with an even stronger, more responsive Library that is prepared to meet any new challenges we might face.
We are proud of the Library’s role as a key partner in San Francisco’s response to COVID, as well as its recent action to open air respite centers in response to the West Coast wildfires. However, we are all anxious for our libraries to reopen and provide their core operations. As the community’s advocate for Library services, we assure you that we are monitoring developments and advocating for the safe reopening and resumption of all Library services and programs when possible.
In the meantime, our SFPL is once again demonstrating its excellence in innovative response. The following is a summary of current Library services:
Materials. SFPL To Go, front-door service for real books and media, is open at the Main Library and five branches (Excelsior, Marina, Mission Bay, Merced, and Eureka Valley) with more branches scheduled to open in October. Pop Up Pick-up service using the bookmobiles will also be dispatched to ensure more neighborhoods have access to books and materials.
eResources. Thanks in large part to the Friends community and the Library Preservation Fund, SFPL already has the largest eCollection of books, media, and technology applications of any urban public library. Use of eResources had skyrocketed by 60%.
Virtual programming continues to expand in priority areas of children’s literacy, school support, job search, career development, technology, ESL, and literary and cultural events. Friends continues to fund the authors, artists, experts, and materials for these new and evolving programs.
Citywide emergency response. SPFL staff continue to play critical roles in coordinated, citywide responses to COVID and wildfires. Designated branches will open as community hubs providing schoolchildren K-5 with access to free Wi-Fi, meals, and emotional support, while schools are physically closed. The Richmond Branch will be the first to open. While hundreds of Librarians have returned, many continue working in food distribution centers and as contact tracers helping to keep infections down.
Friends is in Good Health (thanks to you)
This year has presented us with complex decisions, as it has with community organizations holding fast to their missions. We are happy to report that Friends ended its 2019–2020 fiscal year in good health, thanks to our donors who helped us meet our fundraising goals. Sadly, we also had to implement cost-cutting measures, including closing the Fort Mason bookstore and laying off beloved staff, actions that no organization ever wants to take. We did not make these decisions lightly and share in the mourning of these losses. We are keenly aware of the challenges and economic uncertainty that lay ahead; and we are going to need your strong, ongoing financial support. Our responsibility is to advocate for you and to stay financially healthy as the caretaker for our beloved SFPL. Thank you so much for your support. We are profoundly grateful.
And what of the future of the SFPL…
Campaign for the Future of the Library
As many of you know, we entered 2020 unveiling our $10 Million Campaign for the Future of the San Francisco Public Library. The Campaign called for an infusion of support through 2023 to fund furniture, fixtures, and equipment (FF&E) for the renovations of the Mission, Chinatown, and Oceanview branches; ensure the renewal of the Library Preservation Fund (voter-mandated library funds); and, double the direct support for the SFPL to over $2 million annually. We are still pursuing this campaign, albeit slightly modified. Our adapted plan retains our ambitious commitment to double the direct annual support, ensures the renewal of the Library Preservation Fund in 2022, and funds the FF&E for the Mission Branch renovation (which remains on schedule). Current challenges have forced a reassessment of the timeframe for the remaining two branch projects. We will keep you informed and invite you to take part as plans unfold. Meanwhile, we can look forward with anticipation to our next Library Laureates gala at the Main.
The Book Program
While we weather this trying period, we look forward to planning a new future for our book program as well. At this time, we can only operate online. We have increased stock in our online stores and have begun to sell new books by authors featured in SFPL programs (Fresh Prints of the SFPL). Our book donation services have reopened on a limited basis, by appointment only. When we can sell books face-to-face again, we will look to you for inspiring ideas: A new bookstore? A retooled Big Book Sale? New book-loving events? In the next few weeks, members of our Board and staff will try to reach out and talk to as many of you as possible to see how you are feeling and to chat about our great Library. If you have comments, suggestions, or questions, please feel free to send them to us at email@example.com. Please stay safe and thank you so much.
Work it! San Francisco Public Library is doubling down on programs to aid patrons who have lost work. With the unemployment rate at 12.5 percent in San Francisco, the public library is stepping up to help patrons find pathways to economic recovery with the launching of Work It, an ongoing series of virtual programs focused on job searching, career development, personal finance, and small business resources.
Highlights of programming include: a financial planning series; a virtual speaker series on health insurance, taxes, and investing; Jobs and Careers programs on Resume Writing Essentials, How to Get a California State Job, and Hope Levy’s Age as an Asset program, exploring ways for older adults to use their life experiences to land the perfect job. In partnership with California Employment Development, the Library will offer CalJOBS for Beginners in Spanish and Cantonese.
SFPL’s robust Jobs and Careers portal also offers a multitude of options for job seekers, such as live resume, interview, and career coaching with JobNow and EDD. Check out the Library’s Business and Personal Finance Resources, including COVID local resources and Smart Money Coaching for expanded one-on-one counseling on budgeting basics. Job seekers are also encouraged to check out the Library’s free technology workshop series, Tech Time. For more information, email the Business, Science, and Technology Center at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit sfpl.org.
We are touched and heartened by the outpouring of sentiment and affection for the beloved Fort Mason bookstore. Thank you for being our fans and supporters for so many years. It was a good run, and we share your sadness that it had to end.
We want you to know that it was a difficult decision to shutter our iconic bookstore. We want to share with you the considerations behind the closure and what the future holds.
The Board and staff of Friends have been considering changes to the structure of the book program for some time, in order to more effectively serve our mission for the San Francisco Public Library, which is to raise funds to augment Library programs, and ensuring access to books and resources to diverse communities across the city.
We hope the Book Program will fulfill this mission in three ways:
1. raising additional funds through earned revenue by selling donated books;
2. donating books to low-income communities through organizations and schools;
3. providing access to inexpensive books through our stores, events, and pop-ups in the community.
Closure and relocation of the Fort Mason bookstore were under discussion before the COVID-19 pandemic. The unexpected rampage of the pandemic and mandated health orders resulted in expediting decisions to avoid significant damage to the survival of Friends.
Here is what you should know:
Financial survival in a global pandemic. The shelter-in-place order in March shut down the possibility of conducting retail sales, forcing the furlough of some employees and ultimately the elimination of positions. These are terrible decisions that no one ever wants to have to make. Only now are we beginning to inch back into online sales with stringent limitations on the volunteers and staff, with safety protocols in compliance with the San Francisco Health Officer.
Expensive leases. Friends was burdened by increasingly expensive leases in San Francisco, including our administrative offices at 710 Van Ness Avenue, that had begun to affect how well we could carry out our mission to the Library.
The Fort Mason Center lease. In particular, the Fort Mason lease and the way it was structured precluded any opportunity to keep the lease through the pandemic and reopen after it ended.
For the remainder of the epidemic, we will focus on online sales, and then slowly add back face-to-face sales and literary events. In addition, we will have the flexibility of inventing something new, whether it is a brick and mortar location, or pop-up style traveling stores.
Although these changes have been hard, we are hopeful about the future of a new book program. Making these tough decisions unleashes the creativity and flexibility we need for the future.
The one thing we do know is that we need and want you. We ask you for your ideas and for your support as we rebuild. We have no doubt that we will emerge even stronger and look forward to continuing to work with you to spread our vision for the Library and for community literacy across the city.
Friends of the San Francisco Public Library
Writing in Lockdown - the Brown Handler Residents share their work in conversation with Lisa Brown and Daniel Handler.
Two years ago, Lisa Brown and Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) created this Writer's Residency to provide local writers with free, adequate, and accessible space to produce creative work in San Francisco. Residents were able to work directly with the Library in tandem with their creative projects. The residents were using the space until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since shelter in place went into effect, the physical space component of the residency has not been possible, but the community built around the residency is still thriving. To catch up with the five talented writers, we have launched a six-part interview series with the current residents. In the series, now available on our YouTube channel and on our Library Friends Podcast feed, Lisa Brown and Daniel Handler check in with all the talented residents about how they are adapting to creatively working from home.
Each writer shares an excerpt of what they worked on during their residency year. Amanda Moore, a poet who draws inspiration from San Francisco and the neighborhoods she's lived in, shares poems that evokes the feeling of walking through the city. Shruti Swamy, a fiction writer, reads a story from her new book called A House is a Body, coming out on August 11th.
Don't miss these exciting conversations. Watch it below, or listen to it on our Library Friends Podcast!
Friends has started a new campaign called Voices Unite, to share and celebrate our unique community of librarians, library workers and patrons. In all of our content, including our new Library Friends podcast, we are posting interviews with these changemakers in our community. These intimate conversations give you a chance to learn more about the extraordinary people you used to pass by at the Library before the shelter-in-place order.
In May 2020, we interviewed Librarian turned Disaster Service Worker, Alan Wong. We also spoke with Daniel Matsumoto, an eResources Librarian at SFPL, about how the Library’s online services are adapting to the influx of traffic. Another can’t-miss conversation is an interview with historian and advocate Peter Booth Wiley on how the Library’s past can help us understand this turbulent new present, and how we can prepare for the future.
The Coronavirus pandemic has been hard on everyone, but from quarantine, librarians have taken the opportunity to innovate and engage with the public in free and accessible ways. These library workers are continuing the Library’s mission of free access to all, and Friends is here to provide additional financial support for technology, equipment and services to help tell this important story of public service.
Subscribe to the Library Friends Podcast and hear these stories:
I wanted to share with you the SFPL's official statement on the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, as well as the devastating impact of COVID-19 on people of color, especially African Americans. This statement was crafted by the SFPL Racial Equity Committee and Commission President Dr. Mary Wardell Ghirarduzzi, and makes clear that the Library stands with the Black Lives Matter movement and supports all efforts to end the systemic racism and inequality in our communities.
Friends of the San Francisco Public Library stands with the Library in its response and by our work for equitable access to resources and opportunity without racial and economic barriers. The library is the only institution that provides all of its resources - material, virtual, and human – free for everyone. It is the foundation of our democracy and embodies the call from communities around the world to embrace, nurture, and empower those who have the least and those who suffer the most from discrimination. Your dedicated support keeps our Library strong as a vital institution of justice and fairness.
When we think libraries, many of us think – BOOKS! But, libraries are so much more and are often the heart of a community. Libraries play host to arts and culture events, including music, author readings, museum exhibits, children’s storytime, and more. Libraries also provide and facilitate critical services, such as job support and educational activities.
Those who work in our libraries also play a critical role during crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time, San Francisco librarians have become essential front-line workers, helping with communications, homeless services, distribution of resources, and guidance to vulnerable populations.
In a special episode of the News in Context podcast, Host Gina Baleria, also a board member of the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, interviews three people responsible for making the San Francisco Public Library the beloved and award-winning place it is.
The panel represents various aspects of SFPL.
The panel and I explore the context of libraries and their role in communities – both every day… and during a crisis, as well as what the San Francisco Public Library is doing right now to support the community and those most vulnerable during this critical time.
Listen to News in Context every Friday at 8:30 am and 6:30 pm on 102.5 KSFP in San Francisco, or on your favorite podcast channel.