Public Comment

Commentary: Oakland Measure Will Not Aid Libraries

By Zoia Horn
Tuesday October 31, 2006

Sweeping together popular and questionable proposals into one package is an old political trick that too often frustrates many voters. But often the politicians gamble on the enthusiasm for one part to carry the wriggling bundle through to a win. 

Measure N is just one such a questionable bundle. 

Three proposals are made in the Measure N: 

1. Improvement of old neighborhood branches (as basic as installing badly needed public toilets) and creating new branches for neighborhoods that need them.  

2. Moving the Main Library into part of the Henry Kaiser Convention Center, a few blocks from the current Main. 

3. Installation of “self-service options for faster check-out.” This is quoted from a mailing sent by an Oakland Neighborhood Library Coalition urging a vote for Measure N. 

I am enthusiastic for the improvement and expansion of neighborhood branch libraries. Libraries are essential for lifelong learning and enjoyment, from early childhood to ancients like me. They are needed for getting vital information whether as students or adults trying to make a living or for daily problems like repairing furniture, cooking, parenting and, of course, lending CDs, DVDs, videos, as well as providing access to Internet on the computers. Neighborhood branch libraries are particularly important for children and seniors who will use them if they are within walking distance. So, yes, yes, for that part of the smorgasbord which in Measure N has been served up as a stew.  

“Relocating” the Main Library to the Kaiser Convention Center building, however, is another kettle of fish altogether.  

First, a Main Public Library belongs in the middle of town, where people work, shop, meet. go to restaurants, to theaters, movies, and have public transportation and parking available. It should be convenient for quick drop-ins or extensive research. The building should be functional as a library, for librarians and the public. Librarians and the public can tell what is wanted and what is needed if they are given clear information, possible options, and an opportunity to question and speak. For so major a move with so large a bond measure, there was mighty little opportunity for questions and input by the public and little in the newspapers. 

The Kaiser Convention Center is an impressive building, but it is in the wrong place for a Main Library. The foot traffic is minimal. (It does have parking, but then you need a car). The Berkeley Daily Planet’s informative fine article, “A Guide to Oakland’s Measures M,N and O” (Oct. 6) by J. Douglas Allen-Taylor, provided a background for this choice: “Finding a public use for the recently closed Kaiser Convention Center.” He listed that as quite a separate task in Measure N. 

One can appreciate the vacancy problem for the City Council, and understand the convenience of such a quick solution The building, at this point, is a white elephant. It is a valuable asset that requires a wise choice for public use. As for a Main Library, better by far it would be for the Oakland Public Library to begin researching a good location and get the public’s enthusiasm for a sizable, attractive Main Library that Oakland deserves. Solving the Kaiser Center vacancy problem, however, should not be the Library’s mission. NO for that section of Measure N. 

The last proposal is another hot potato. Installing “self-service options for faster checkout” sounds harmless. What it masks is the installation of a highly controversial RFID (Radio Frequency Identification Device) system. RFID is being used to track prisoners, cattle, products in stores, and now, credit cards, although those are having privacy troubles as revealed in (“Researchers see Privacy Pitfalls in No-Swipe Credit Cards” that are using RFID. (New York Times, Oct. 23). RFID is a booming new business and is pushing hard to expand into more fields, including libraries. Some libraries have succumbed to the Siren song of vendors, with very mixed results: trouble with charging out DVDs, CDs, and despite promises of charging of a stack of books at one blow, it has been a one-by-one process too often.  

But the major problem of RFID in libraries is that those little tags inserted in books and other materials potentially can be used to undermine the privacy of library users by discovering what they read, listen to and borrow from the library. Librarians have defended these freedoms and rights as part of the ethics of the profession. 

In the current period of concerns about governmental surveillance, spying, warrentless searches and attacks on critics and dissenters, this potential attack on library user privacy is an inappropriate technological tool to use in a library. As a retired librarian of many years, I cannot accept this subversion of our basic role as protectors of people’s right to think, speak, read without fear of even the possibility of Big Brother watching in person or through reading of radio frequency signals. 

For the first time in my life I sadly will vote against a funding bond measure for libraries. This hodge-podge Measure N is unworthy of support. 

As a small addendum: Remember the Berkeley Public Library’s year-long battle around RFID that was established without adequate consultation with the community and librarians. The director was asked to resign, I believe. The ACLU opposes RFID, as does the American Library Association, although not as confidently as it should.  


Zoia Horn is an Oakland resident