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.
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