A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Books

This morning I read about how the Main branch of the San Francisco Public Library is increasing the numbers of both security and custodial staff, in an effort to make the library safer and cleaner (and ultimately more usable?  The article doesn’t seem to worry about that piece of the puzzle).

SF Main Library implementing new strategies to curb unsavory behavior

First, wowza, one million dollars!  That’s  a lot of money!  But, only a little over 3% of the total budget.  So not that much maybe, relatively.  I’m still learning how library budgets flesh out.

Second, this is kind of a sensational sentence:

“The institution has been marred by violence, drug use, sleeping patrons and deplorable bathrooms. ”


This was one of my main library haunts for about ten years, until quite recently in fact. SFPL Main is a nice library.  It was built in the mid-90s.  It’s a great building, with the side that faces the civic center plaza done in a beaux-arts style, to match City Hall and the Asian Art Museum (former library), and the other side of the building done in a more current style.  It’s a harmonious blend of traditional and modern aesthetics. There is plenty of light, and computers.  The children’s area is big and welcoming.  The San Francisco History Center is housed on one of the upper floors, and it is beautifully appointed with comfortable wooden tables and interesting ephemera.  But don’t take my word for it.  If you read the Yelp reviews, you’ll find enthusiastic library-lovers.

SF Main rotunda

The bathrooms can get smelly.  I can’t give you any personal commentary on the elevators, because I don’t use them, but I believe they can get funky as well.  And, as with any library, there are a good number of heavy duty users who are freaks, weirdos, unclean, or otherwise unsavory. In September, I did read a news article where one patron hit another patron in the face with a chair.  And if you read the Yelp reviews, there are a lot of people who say “the only thing wrong with this library is…” and then mention something to do with cleanliness, or unsavory types, or use a phrase like “crawling with homeless people.”  As if homeless people, like roaches, are  an infestation.

SF main modern side

The Main library is downtown, in a large city, and it is the closest library for two of the city’s major dumping grounds for the poor: the Tenderloin, and 6th Street (click that second link, if you click on any link today). I want to quote Melinda B. from Yelp to you, because I think she’s put it very well:

 The bathrooms are not awesome due to the high preponderance of street vagrants.  The bathrooms smell.  There’s no way around it.  You can’t leave your stuff lying around.  But this is a big city so I have no expectation for doing that anyway.

When I walked in at opening time I was astounded at the crowds, and I do mean crowds of homeless people headed inside.  But honestly, I’ve never been bothered by anyone here, so the people who say it’s a cesspool strike me as people who have not much experience with city life.   I take pity on the homeless, so as long as they’re respectful to the facility and other patrons, not horribly stinky, not making noise or disturbing anyone, they don’t bother me in the least. Let them read the papers and use the internet–isn’t that what public libraries are for?

So, is the library “marred by violence, drug use, sleeping patrons and deplorable bathrooms”?  I wouldn’t put it that way.  (Aside: Can a sleeping person really marr anything?  Doesn’t that require a little more action?)  It’s a city library, yo.  Negotiating the way that different populations use the facilities, materials, and services is a tough and ever-present challenge for public libraries.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a good idea to spend more on custodial and security staff (and I think I’m going to save that for another post).  But the Main Library is not a blighted cesspool.  It’s just got city problems.

Photo: San_Francisco_Public_Library_Main_Branch_Facade By Alexander Marks (aomarks) (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: San Francisco Public Library by Flickr User Sameer Vasta, via Creative Commons License

Photo: San Francisco Main Library by Flickr User George Kelly, via Creative Commons License


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