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Whose Library Is It? 

Funding for the New Main Library has activists wondering about the private sector's role in the public institution

Wednesday, Apr 17 1996
Timothy Gillespie grabs a piece of paper and sketches the future of the San Francisco Public Library -- as he sees it. "Taco Bell Memorial Library" reads a crude rendering of a library marquee. "I'm not normally psychic," says the good-government activist. "But this time I think I'm right."

Gillespie's prognostication, induced by the massive philanthropic push by corporations and wealthy individuals to fund the New Main Library, isn't that grandiose. Inside the New Main, set to open to the public Thursday morning, April 18, are two rooms named for corporations: the Chevron Teen Room and the Bank of America Jobs and Career Center.

In the lexicon of library fund-raising, these not so subtle advertisements are called "naming opportunities." Like 3Com Park, it's a new vogue in government financing. Instead of municipalities taxing the private sector and funding programs however they see fit, companies get a salable payback for their civic-mindedness: They get to advertise on public, taxpayer-funded property.

In other words: with purses come strings. And corporate imprimaturs are just the most visible example of the private sector's growing influence over the public library -- a trend that is causing ripples of fear and consternation throughout the library system.

"It's the beginning of the privatization of the library," says Gillespie.
Gillespie and his fellow library activists are given to high-flown rhetoric. But truth is, major shifts are under way in the library system, and the distinctions between the public and private sector, and the at-times conflicting ideals of the two worlds, are blurring.

It all started early in 1990 when library administrators and supporters decided to tap corporations and individuals to fund the collections and the furnishings for the New Main Library. (The building itself was financed with public bonds passed by voters.) The nonprofit Library Foundation -- established by such notable San Francisco families as the Gettys and the Swigs -- put the bite to donors. In the process it developed a new, strikingly successful program for raising money. Soliciting support from what it called "affinity groups" -- lesbians and gays, African-Americans, Latinos, and environmentalists -- the foundation culled almost $35 million for the New Main.

"Philanthropic journals are writing so glowingly about the method that it has gotten embarrassing," says Dale Carlson, a foundation board member and vice president of the Pacific Stock Exchange.

With the affinity group money came laudable programs: new collections centering on African-American and lesbian and gay culture -- historically unrepresented subjects.

And the library got furnishings that are, put simply, first rate. Marble floors instead of linoleum, for example.

But now, like its corporate benefactors, the foundation wants something in return: an official and permanent place and role in the system.

Under a memorandum of understanding (MOU) before the Board of Supervisors, the Library Foundation will get 1,260 square feet of office space in the New Main for the annual rent of just $1. The foundation will hold events -- lectures and private parties -- for which it will charge money. The foundation has promised in the MOU to raise at least $300,000 a year for library projects and collections, as well as to make a $21,600 annual gift. The city has agreed to pay the foundation up to $200,000 to cover its management costs.

Under the MOU, the events will be held mostly after hours. But the agreement also opens up the possibility of for-profit events during regular library hours.

That the foundation will be opening up a private, exclusive (to those who can afford to pay) track of library-related events in a publicly financed building has some library watchers and librarians angry. They point out that when voters passed Proposition E in 1994 and created a guaranteed funding stream for the library system, a survey was done asking what were the priority items the administration should spend the money on. Increasing evening hours was at the top of the list.

It's also no coincidence, they say, that the Old Main Library stayed open until 9 p.m. and the New Main will close an hour earlier. That's 200 hours a year that used to be free to the public.

From the start, granting a private, nonprofit foundation a role, no matter how small, in a public institution was sure to cause anxiety. In most other cities, this kind of financing scheme, and the private sector's influence, would barely rate a blip on most people's radar screens. But this is San Francisco, where public oversight of government and small-d democracy is revered with religious fervor. Add the town's pronounced class consciousness to the mix, and you have a classic San Francisco political rallying point: the specter of rich and powerful individuals and corporations taking control of a public institution meant to serve all San Franciscans, regardless of income, and making decisions outside the view of the taxpaying public.

"The thing that concerns me is that the foundation seems to be moving ahead with its own scheme in a secrecy mode," says Bill Hale, a longtime library watchdog. To prove his point, he says the MOU was drafted "in secret" among the library administration, the foundation, and the city's Real Estate Department.

While what Hale says is true, it is equally true that all policy is drafted outside public view before being presented to a public body for approval. And that Supervisor Tom Ammiano delayed approval of the MOU for a month, giving critics like Hale a chance to have their voices heard, shows that the democratic process hasn't completely fallen apart.

Foundation supporters stress that they are open to changing, or crimping, their role and privileges if these offend people's political sensibilities. "If the library users say they want longer evening hours, that's what they'll get," says Steve Coulter, the library commission president and a former foundation board member. "Look, I'm a small-d Democrat as well as a big-D Democrat, so I understand these points."

But Hale and his fellow critics are not mollified. And protestations by the foundation that it will merely be a fund-raising arm and not a policy-shaping body are not entirely accurate. By opening or closing its purse, the foundation will make its mark.

Coulter admits that if the library asks the foundation to fund a project it feels would be politically or culturally unpopular, it may decline to raise the money. "If they propose something like the Qaddafi collection or something like that, the foundation would likely take a pass," says Coulter.

And Coulter freely admits that Sherry Thomas, the executive director of the Library Foundation, sits in on library administration meetings.

To hand policy power to a private entity -- no matter how limited that power is -- is anathema to the ideal of a public institution, Hale says.

Already, the foundation's values have been felt in setting a tone at the New Main. Hale and others point out that when the library and the foundation set about deciding what kind of food-service outlet to have in the New Main, they opted for a for-profit cafe and didn't think about the need for a cafeteria setting for brown-baggers.

Giving the foundation a role in picking a concessionaire may not seem like a major shift in public policy. But consider this: Under the MOU, all donors have a right to confidentiality. How then does the public know that donors don't have a financial interest in picking who runs a cafe, or what events management firms are chosen to run the foundation's events -- another provision of the MOU?

But like it or not, the arrangement with the foundation will only become more important as municipal revenues continue to dwindle in the coming years. "You have to be entrepreneurial now," Coulter says. "Public money isn't going to be there forever."

Be sure, without the foundation's fund-raising efforts the New Main Library would be second rate, rather than the stunning and richly appointed building we have.

Because the MOU is open to negotiation, San Francisco now has a choice about the future of the library. Take money from corporations and individuals to make the library first rate. Or, turn them away, and content ourselves with limited collections and other library resources. In the process, San Francisco will have to reorder its two chief desires: pure democracy and a high level of public services.

About The Author

George Cothran


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