Tough Love for Berkeley Libraries
and How to Handle It

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday January 26, 2011 - 10:56:00 AM

Some Berkeleyans care a lot about their libraries. Probably, most Berkeleyans care a lot about their libraries in principle, but some care even more and care more consistently. In the latter group, in the last few years, there’s been a tug of war between those who have ideas and plans for improvements in the name of progress, and those who aren’t so sure that all change is really progress. They’re all good people. 

Last week we ran an article about the use of voter-approved bond funds to buy a “book van” to be used while the branch libraries were undergoing improvement, written by a local writer who’s made no secret of his belief that the law restricts the use of such funds to long-term capital improvements, not to be used for short-term operating or equipment expenses. 

This is similar to the discussion about whether bond funds can be used to demolish two of the four branch libraries when the ballot measure which was voted on didn’t mention demolition (or bookmobiles.) The legal controversy over the demolitions has moved into the courts now, and it will be interesting to see how it’s decided. The bookmobile question, as far as we know, has until now escaped legal scrutiny except by the lawyers in the Berkeley City Attorney’s office who advise the Board of Library Trustees (BOLT) behind the scenes. 

According to its page on the city’s website, BOLT is “the only appointed administrative Board in the City. Members of the Board are appointed for four year terms by the City Council as a whole; one member of the Board must also be a member of the City Council.” It’s a very powerful body with many employees, administering a big budget coming from the city’s general funds and additional special funds of various sorts, but most Berkeley citizens have little idea of what goes on there. 

Two volunteer civic groups support Berkeley public libraries. One, the Berkeley Public Library Foundation says on its web site that “the mission of the Berkeley Public Library Foundation (BPLF) is to support our community's knowledge and learning by enhancing library facilities, programs, and services. “ Further down the site, it says: “The Berkeley Public Library Foundation is launching a campaign to raise much-needed funds for the Claremont, North, West, and South Branch/Tool Lending branches. 

It continues: “In Fall 2008, Berkeley voters passed Measure FF, which commits $26 million to renovate, expand, and make seismic and access improvements, ensuring that the four neighborhood branch libraries continue to serve the needs of the community now and long into the future. By law, however, bond funds may not be used to fund furniture, fixtures and equipment. [No cite for this legal opinion…and not necessarily applicable to bookmobiles, of course.] . . .We are raising funds to equip and furnish the interiors—to pay for the computers, tables and chairs, furniture and equipment that are so essential to creating the libraries we want and that our community deserves.” 

And there’s a another group as well: “The Friends of the Berkeley Public Library is a non-profit organization whose purpose is to support and expand the educational, cultural, and outreach programs of the Library. The Friends work with library staff to build collections and to stimulate community interest in the Library.” 

All in all, there’s a lot of love for libraries in Berkeley, and a bit of Tough Love too. That would be SuperBOLD, Berkeleyans Organizing for Library Defense, which has an opinion commentary in this issue (and many in previous issues) regarding its criticisms of how BOLT operates, and also Concerned Library Users, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the use of bond funds for demolition, and the Library Users Association, some but not all of whose members live in Berkeley. 

After last week’s article about the bookmobile appeared, I got a couple of angry letters, not for publication, from old friends, both civic activists who have devoted many years of unpaid service to the Library, who thought it was grossly inappropriate for the Planet to publish it. One referred scathingly to “the out-of-town lawsuit about the demolitions” as justification for the quoted library administrator’s evasive responses to the writer’s questions. He suggested that we should instead be reporting on the millions of dollars UC has spent building temporary quarters for its athletic programs. The other was so outraged that she cancelled her (free) subscription to the Planet’s email updates. 

I offered both of them as much space as they wanted to express their opinions online, but so far both have declined. Nevertheless, their letters raise some important points which deserve answers. 

Here’s a cleaned-up version of what I told them: 

First, I'd love to have someone volunteer to cover the bottomless pit of scandal re UC's athletic finances, in Strawberry Canyon and elsewhere. We’re mostly dependent on volunteer reporters these days, though you may remember we expended lots of time and money on UC's sins in the past. But so far no one has offered. 

Second, the reason it looked like the library director was stonewalling in the bookmobile story is because she WAS stonewalling. The writer submitted a perfectly reasonable list of questions couched in ordinary language about matters which ought to be in public discussion, and she chose to reply with legalistic bureaucratic mumbojumbo. He didn't make a California Public Records Act request, and yet she responded as if he had. This is what makes the public suspicious, and it undermines support for the library. 

Perhaps she was ill-advised by some lawyer--it's been known to happen. Since my Bar card is thirty years out of date I can't judge that. 

Re outside agitators: I know the lawsuit is not "out-of-town" because the quoted spokesperson for Concerned Library Users is a near neighbor of mine and she bends my ear about it every time she catches me on College Avenue. (She also told me she supports the bookmobile.) 

I also know that Peter Warfield, frequent spokesperson for the Library Users Association, lives in San Francisco, but he as well as many Berkeleyans are part of a general crusade throughout the Bay Area and elsewhere against changes to libraries which are perceived as "pro-technology" and "anti-book". (See Nicholson Baker's superb book on this general topic.) I agree with some of their points, disagree with others, but it's important to hear them out. 

And both Berkeley and the rest of the world are well-supplied with people, including me, who just don't like to see buildings which can be re-used torn down, period. Perhaps even regardless of architectural significance, on environmental grounds alone: the greenest building is the one which already exists. Again, you don't have to agree with them, but they have a legitimate point of view which deserves an airing. That's where many libary critics are coming from these days, in Berkeley, in San Francisco and elsewhere. 

As far as which funding pocket the book van came out of, that's a legitimate question too, in the minds of the local equivalents of "deficit hawks". Many of them believe that bond funds should only be used for long-term capital improvements, that short-lived purchases like vans should come out of operating funds, and I think that's what the writer of the article said. 

Finally, anyone who cares about the library should be aware that its governance has, since I've been paying attention, frequently fallen beneath the standard of disclosure that I expect as a journalist. I'm not sure why that should be the case, but little attention seems to be paid by the library’s board and especially by staff to "the public's right to know". I spent far too many hours in the 7 years I was on the Landmarks Preservation Commission reviewing library plans of various sorts that turned out never to happen the way they were described to the LPC. 

Nevertheless, in our eight years on this job we have always offered spokespeople for whatever is the Library's current official position as much opinion space in the Planet as they choose to use, though oddly enough that’s turned out to be very little. We now, out of necessity, have a policy of allowing engaged citizens to report news of events from their own point of view, as long as they disclose their opinion, which the writer of the bookmobile article has always scrupulously done. 

I hate to sound, once again, like an old-time liberal, but the best remedy for speech you don't like is more speech. If you disagree with what you read here, have at it, and we’ll happily publish what you think. 

And as long as additional funding from the public, whether in the form of taxes, bonds, or voluntary contributions, is needed by Berkeley libraries (which looks like a permanent state of affairs) critics should be dealt with respectfully and patiently, if at all possible. My elementary school teacher used to require us to say “thank you” when we were criticized—an old-fashioned idea, but it still has merit. Remember, they wouldn’t bother to criticize you if they didn’t love you. Really.