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Historical Essay

by Nicholson Baker


The New Main Library in Civic Center, c 1996.
Photo: Chris Carlsson

The people who work in this building are disappointed and demoralized. They feel that they have been lied to. And I think they have been lied to. The librarians, technicians, pages, and other staff members in this building are a group of smart, funny, learned, brave, but apprehensive people. They are apprehensive--and to tell you the truth, I am apprehensive--about the City Librarian, Mr. Ken Dowlin, who came here in 1987, and who has been responsible, since the earthquake, I believe, for the destruction of--not twenty thousand books, not fifty thousand books, not a hundred thousand books, not a hundred and fifty thousand books, but the destruction of, the systematic removal to a landfill of--at least two hundred thousand library books, more library books than were destroyed in the so-called Ham and Eggs fire that burned nearly everything in the collection in 1906. [Dowlin quit under intense pressure, including from Mayor Willie Brown, in January 1997.--ed.]

That can't be, can it? Surely I'm exaggerating? Let's start with the recent move. In the first months of this year, the main library was supposed to transfer its contents from an old building that was too small to a new building that was much bigger. All the consultants, and the Friends of the Library, and the Library Foundation, the Commission, and, most important, the voters, had reached a rare and ecstatic state of consensus over the fact that the old library building couldn't hold what it was being asked to hold and that more space was urgently needed.

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The old Main Library and its inscription. It's since been converted into the Asian Art Museum.
Photo: Chris Carlsson

So the city built a new building. It's an enormous building on the outside. And inside, as well, everywhere you walk you can enjoy expanses of wall-to-wall carpeting and vistas of distant gift shops and teen centers and sweeping stairways and uninterrupted sight-lines in almost every direction. Throw back your head, and you stare upward through a towering void that extends to a conical cornea of whitened glass hundreds of feet above you. One of the architects, James Ingo Freed, is on record as saying that he caught his passion for space exploration from Mies van der Rohe. "I've been involved with it ever since," he told the Chronicle, "layering it, bridging it, carving out monumental atriums, as in the library, so people can experience space, move through it and, most of all, enjoy it." And Mr. Dowlin, the City Librarian, is also an admirer of space--not only physical space, but what he has called the "neogeography" that is created by virtual communities formed of individuals who are far away from each other physically.

But space, from the point of view of an existing collection of books, means something quite different from floor space, or atrium space, or even magnetic sectors on a file server or megahertzes of bandwidth in a telecommunications cable, all of which this library has in relative abundance. Space, to a book, means shelves; shelves of a certain height and width. Unfortunately, several people seem to have made basic mistakes of arithmetic when they were estimating the number of shelving units that they would have to install in this new building. And they did not consult the librarians who would be responsible for individual areas of the transposed collection. You can get up to seven shelves on one shelving unit, so long as the books are uniformly under eleven inches tall. But books aren't uniform, and if you measure the available shelf space in a new building in linear feet, and don't take into account the variable height of books, you are going to have a problem. But that seems to be what happened. Every librarian I have talked to, every technician, every page, everybody, even when they disagree about other things, agrees on this point: the departments of this library were promised at least enough shelf space to hold their existing collections. And yet they did not get it. They have, with the possible exception of Business and Technology, less shelf-space than they had before. The true horror of this state of affairs only began to dawn on the staff late in 1995, when individual librarians began mapping potential book arrangements prior to the move. Tape measures came out, calculators were turned on, rules of thumb were invoked. Suddenly it was clear. The collection in the old Main Library was not going to fit in the new Main Library. Something had to be done. And something was done. The collection was attacked. It was thoughtlessly and hastily reduced in volume. It was "weeded."

Now, "weeding" is a term of art in librarianship, and it is a necessary part of what librarians do. If you have five copies of an old edition of Samuelson's Economics, or of Booth Tarkington's The Man from Indiana, your librarianly duty is to reduce the number, so that there will be space for other books. The library sells them or gives them away, or even throws them away, if nobody wants them, so as not to be choked by the foliage of what was once heavily in demand but is no longer. But beyond these self-evident cases, weeding a great public library such as San Francisco's takes time and careful thought. You have to assess the worthiness or worthlessness of your weed from several perspectives. If it's a little out of your primary area of knowledge, you have to look it up in standard bibliographies. You have to check the record in the catalog and consider what other books are in the library on the same subject. If the catalog says that there is a duplicate copy somewhere in the system, you have to verify that that duplicate copy is actually on the shelf and is in good shape, since a book can be missing or stolen or listed as still owned. You have to keep in mind the historical tradition of your library, its known strengths and weaknesses, its imagined future. If the book under your eye is an old edition of something that has been republished, you have to ask yourself whether that old edition has some special merit, something about its annotation, or the eminence of its editor, or the historical flavor of its presentation, that the new one may lack. All this and more comes in to play when an astute librarian goes about weeding his or her collection. And even then there are differences of opinion, of course. To quote from a book called Garden Friends and Foes, by Richard Headstrom, "If you were asked to prepare a list of weeds and compare it with one prepared by someone else, they would probably not be in complete agreement."

But what has gone on at the San Francisco Public Library over the last year was not weeding. It was a hate-crime directed at the past. I found Garden Friends and Foes in a room near the shipping and receiving entrance in the Old Main library. It's called the Discard Room and it is still in use. You walk down a slope, through a Dickensian stone arch, you cross the inner courtyard of the old building, and arrive finally at a windowless, high-ceilinged room, measuring maybe ten by twelve feet. It's not a beautiful part of the world. Stenciled on the wall, several times, in red, are warnings to stack discards neatly. This is the room through which over two hundred thousand books passed. Every Tuesday, for years, until this past January, in fact, a Department of Public Works truck drove down to that room, a flat bed truck with wooden sides of the kind they use to pick up brush and old washing machines and bulk refuse, and two, sometimes three men threw the books, which were tied with string in bundles of eight or ten, into the back of the truck. Sometimes the truck held other things, like an old chair, or a carpet pad, and sometimes it just held books. It's not a simple matter to estimate the capacity of such a truck, but I think I can safely say that it could not hold more than twenty-five hundred bundled volumes. When it was loaded the truck drove the books to one of the DPW's own landfills and dumped them there. This happened week after week, month after month, year after year. But things got especially bad this past winter, when the chief of the Main Library, Kathy Page, panicking, it seems, at the fearsome magnitude of the miscalculation--put out a euphemistic call to all stations: weed. The crew arriving from the DPW would crack open the door of the discard room and close it fast, afraid that an eight-foot-high pile of books would collapse on them.

Some of what was in that room came from the branch libraries. In the summer they were sent a surge of new books bought with Proposition E money, for which they had to find space. At the branches, if one book comes in, one old book has to go out. Many books were pulled and sent back to the main library, where they awaited the DPW truck in the discard room. The trucks came twice a week in the summer.

But this book, Garden Friends and Foes, isn't from one of the branches. It's from the main library's circulating collection. According to the online catalog, there are now no copies of this book on the shelf here. There are no duplicates of it at UC Berkeley, or at Stanford, or at UCLA, or at Davis. There are copies of a number of Headstrom's other books in this collection--he has written about spiders, lizards, birds, insects, and even a Complete Field Guide to Nests in the United States--but this sole copy of his work on weeds was weeded. Why? Because the weeders, as they are called, were told to weed based on condition. The spine of this book, you will notice, is torn, therefore it had to go, since the preservation department, which might once have rebound such a book, is understaffed.

Now I hasten to say that many of the books in the discard room that I have personally checked do have duplicates on the shelves, or at least have later editions of the same work.

Sanitation Worker, by the way, asks you to choose the last phrase of the following jumbled sentence: "the book / the top shelf / of the bookcase / wanted was on / which she." The answer is "of the bookcase." "The book that she wanted was on the top shelf of the bookcase." It wasn't in the back of a DPW truck.

The good news is that as of this past January, no more books have been dumped. On January 9th, the Chronicle's Andy Ross published a story headlined "SF Library Tossing Thousands of Books" and a picture of the discard room. "The ongoing crime was so apparent by then," one observer told me. "The blood was seeping under the door." Since that scandal, which was quickly contained with several half truths about "dilapidated or multiple copies," no book, to my knowledge, has been thrown away. Instead, representatives of charitable groups are invited to tour a large room in the basement of the Old Main library, where the books are neatly arranged on shelves, sorted into fiction, nonfiction, large print, and children's books. It's a model program, though understaffed, and the people who tend to it deserve our gratitude. Today, in fact, all day long, about sixty charitable groups, chosen on the basis of need, browsed through something like twenty thousand books, taking whatever they could use.

If it is going to be the policy of a library's senior administration to dismantle the contents of its old collection, to throw out last copies of old bird books and geography books, for example, then this Adopt-a-Book program, in which texts go to schools, and prisons, and rural libraries here in California or in Armenia, or in villages in South Africa, is exactly what we would want to see happen. Some village somewhere is going to be getting a copy of Ask Librarian for Holdings Information.

Still, one part of the crime has been stopped. This library's fresh discards will continue their lives in readable form, and not make up a layer in the ultimate closed stack, the sanitary landfill. What is maddening, though, is how late we were in stopping it. Two hundred thousand books destroyed is a conservative figure. Some librarians here believe that the real number is closer to three hundred thousand. That landfill is thinking some beautiful thoughts.

No page or librarian or technician, as far as I have been able to determine, was ever asked what they would want or need in a new sorting room. The sorting room has a contempt for books built into it. As one staff member told me: "This is not a good book building. There's not enough room for books, there's not enough staff to get the books back on the shelves, there's not enough staff to check the books out--however it happened, it's an absolute disaster. Books are being destroyed when they're returned."

This is still an excellent research library. I have found things here that I never found at Stanford or UC Berkeley. It is worth all of our efforts to rescue it. What we have to do is a little aggressive weeding of our own; we need to rid our public commons of one particularly stubborn and invasive piece of vegetation. Let us weed.

--Nicholson Baker from "Weeds" in Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture (City Lights Books, 1998)

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