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Book dumping by the San Francisco Public Library

Page history last edited by PBworks 17 years, 7 months ago

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From Baker, Nicholson. 'The Author vs. The Librarian,' The New Yorker 72 (Oct. 14, 1996): 50-62 and

Basbanes, Nicholas, Patience and Fortitude. New York: Random House, 2001:


In 1996, San Francisco Public Library's long-awaited 'New Main' library opened. Designed by architect Cathy Simon under the direction of head librarian Ken Dowlin, the New Main library was referred to throughout it's design and construction as the 'Library of the Future.' Six stories tall, it contained a huge, open central atrium. The total cost of construction was $140 million dollars, with $35 million coming from private donations.



Problems with the New Main immediately became apparent. Although larger than the Moore or 'Old Main' library, it had significantly less shelving space. Whether this was intentional or not is still hotly debated in San Francisco, but it should be noted that even before he became San Francisco's head librarian in 1987, Ken Dowlin had made repeated comments about the book being a thing of the past and that the primary service libraries should perform in the 'new era' would be computer access and electronic resources. Too, Dowlin made clear his priority to replace as many professional librarians as possible with lower-paid, non-professional pages--whom he referred to as 'high school students.'

During the move of materials from the Moore building to the New Main library, Ken Dowlin arranged to get rid of enormous book collections. At first, the SFPL tried to give away the books. This however raised an enormous hue and cry from the San Francisco community. Book give-aways were picketed by library patrons with signs saying, 'Don't Give Away Our Library.' Some of these activists organized themselves to save the books en masse by taking home as many as possible. An estimated 20,000 books were 'rescued' in this way and as of this date are still waiting in boxes in activists' homes: Their repeated offers to return them to the library collection have been ignored.

In an apparent attempt at secrecy, Dowlin arranged for 200,000 more books to be completely discarded: Over nine months and despite protests and even outright sabotage by the library staff, San Francisco Department of Public Works dump trucks carted away these books to landfills.

Shortly after the New Main opened in early 1997, Ken Dowlin resigned amid acrimony. He remains unbowed in the defense of his own actions in both opting for the design of the new library that had less shelving space than the old one and also in his decision to discard almost half a million books. The architect Cathy Simon refuses to give any interviews regarding her design. The librarians at the San Francisco Public Library--who now find the collections split between the old and new buildings--believe that Dowlin's actions seriously downgraded the quality of the library. Major losses were incurred in the areas of labor history, African-American studies and the history of California. One librarian went so far as to say, 'We were a research library once. We're not anymore.'


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