Talk About Throwing the Book at the San Francisco Library

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It seemed the perfect symbol for the shiny new library when it opened to thunderous acclaim in April: Thousands of cards from the antiquated catalog were plastered on a wall running through three floors of the building. On each card a reader had scrawled an allusion or a reaction to the book indexed--an affecting tribute to the written word and to the library’s big leap into the future where card catalogs need no longer be laboriously maintained by hand.

But in the months that the new San Francisco Public Library has been open, the art piece has become something of a wailing wall, a metaphor for what critics say is a misguided headlong stumble into technology at the expense of the very books the institution is supposed to guard. An energetic band of crusaders has charged that the library has rushed to trash its card catalog before the electronic catalog is complete and has recklessly thrown out tens of thousands of old books that don’t fit into the computer-crammed building.

“We’re in the grip of an almost religious enthusiasm in which we believe in the promise of something that hasn’t yet been fulfilled,” said Nicholson Baker. At one public meeting Baker called the city librarian a bloodless bean counter whose policies amounted to “a hate crime directed at the past.”


Baker is a Berkeley writer noted for novels such as “The Fermata” (Random House, 1994), the story of a man who can freeze time with the snap of his fingers. He gained a bit of infamy in library circles two years ago when he wrote a lengthy piece in the New Yorker attacking the pell-mell switch to online catalogs and the resulting loss of history and personality from cards that had been lovingly cared for by librarians over the ages.

Now Baker has gone from intellectual gadfly to bibliographic guerrilla. He has sued the library to gain access to the mothballed card catalog, which had been slated to be thrown away. He snuck into the nearby old building, which is closed to the public, with a friend and two disgruntled librarians to measure the stacks and try to prove that officials had been lying about its storage capacity. He even offered to write a check for any costs above the $5,000 provisionally budgeted to move the catalog.

The Library Commission, whose meetings have suddenly become emotional confrontations attended by hundreds, is scheduled to vote tonight on a proposal to save the catalog and make it accessible to patrons--although not necessarily in the new library.

In a way, the card catalog dispute is merely an index to a more profound critique of the $140-million, James Freed-designed building with its soaring atrium and 300 computer terminals offering instant Internet access. Gray Brechin, a geographer, historian and fierce critic of the library, was surprised by the level of vitriol he discovered while appearing on a local radio program. Caller after caller disparaged the new building as cold and intimidating. “It wasn’t really designed as a serious library,” Brechin said. “It was designed more as a telecommunications marketing device.”

The target for much of this ire is City Librarian Kenneth Dowlin, who has been pilloried as a man who would rather throw away books than clutter his library with them. “He doesn’t particularly care about books,” said Melissa Riley, chairwoman of the Librarians Guild’s intellectual freedom committee. “He wanted to build something big, like a monument to high-tech, a tourist attraction.”

Dowlin was on vacation and unreachable, but library spokeswoman Marcia Schneider said the attack was unfair. “By purportedly attacking the institution’s head, what is in fact happening is reflecting upon the individual librarians,” she said. “A lot of people are finding it extremely distressing.”


In terms of usage, Schneider said, the library is a booming success: The number of daily visitors has tripled to 9,000, and the number of books checked out per month has risen more than 70% to 270,000. “It’s a beautiful building,” she said. “I don’t think any new building opens without some problems.”

One big problem has been the public relations shellacking the library has taken over its book-weeding policy. Two years ago voters approved a ballot proposition that more than quadrupled the library’s book budget to $4.5 million, allowing it to finally upgrade its aging collection. As a result, librarian Riley and others contend, the library indiscriminately accelerated the pruning of its collection, rushing dump truck after dump truck of carelessly selected old books to landfill sites, especially after it became clear that design changes had reduced the new building’s capacity.

By Baker’s count, based on a massive computer file of discarded books he sued the library for, about 150,000 books have been removed from the 2.2-million-book collection over the last two years--more than turned to ashes when a fire razed the original public library after the 1906 earthquake. “All libraries must throw out books,” he said. “But the library got rid of exactly the wrong books.” He claims that books were tossed more because of their condition than their content.

Baker gained surreptitious access to the old library to measure its storage space--an endeavor that backfired when the San Francisco Examiner put the purported results, that the old building had 49 miles of shelves (not 22 miles as officials claim), on its front page. After the library challenged the figures, Baker and his colleagues admitted that they made a serious counting error but insisted that the old library’s capacity was still only slightly less than the 31 miles of stacks in the new building.

Spokeswoman Schneider said the library has a committee reevaluating its book-weeding policies; critics have called for a grand jury investigation.

In the meantime, the original casus belli slumbers peacefully on the second floor of the old beaux-arts library, which is slated to become the Asian Art Museum. Librarians call the catalog a disaster.


“We would be doing a major disservice to the public to put it into the New Main,” said Roberto Esteves, the acting chief of the library. “The tool doesn’t work any more.” On the other hand, 95% of the library’s holdings are on computer, although Baker insists that there are tens of thousands of books that can be found only in the card catalog--and that some readers don’t know how to use computers.

Although a number of librarians have supported Baker, at least one took exception to his affection for old cards. “I would like to see Mr. Baker spend one hour a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year filing cards in a card catalog; I wonder if he would have such a tender regard for its accuracy and value,” librarian Jill Grundberg wrote to the Bay Guardian. “We, the catalogers of the United States of America, would like earnestly to request that Mr. Baker get a life.”