Thursday, July 14, 2005

Searching for Voltaire at the Library

For decades, San Francisco's Main Public Library was in the building next door on the Civic Center Plaza that has been recently refashioned into the Asian Art Museum.

In the early 1990s, a plan was created to abandon the beautiful old building and create a brand-new, technologically sophisticated place that would be more pleasing to a group of rich people called "Friends of the Public Library" and less welcoming to the hordes of homeless poor people who essentially lived in the old library.

The New Main Library building was opened in 1996 and met with huge controversy. The most famous opposition was offered by the novelist Nicholson Baker, who wrote a couple of witheringly angry articles in "The New Yorker" magazine about the destruction of old books and the wonderful old card catalog because there was no longer any space in the new library. He even expanded his diatribe into a book called "Double Fold" which is reviewed here.

I always hated the place, partly because it smelled wrong, of plastic rather than dusty old books.

Its design seemed more suited for a Hyatt Regency lobby than a public library, and the wholesale destruction of a huge number of books in their collection struck me as criminal.

Among the things they replaced the books with was a bizarre wall of author names that were grotesquely inappropriate.

The staff at the time of the opening seemed overwhelmed by everything and were extremely grouchy, so I just never bothered using the place.

Plus, I belonged to a private library for over 20 years in the Financial District, dating from the 19th century, called the Mechanics' Institute Library. The place looked and smelled and felt right, and the majority of employees were an eccentric, charming and interesting group.

Places that deal with the public, however, have their own weird alchemy when it comes to staff, and unfortunately the new head librarian at the Mechanics' Institute, a truly horrible woman named Inez Shor Cohen, hired a few nasty cronies, the good librarians left or became fearful, and gradually the library became a miserable place to visit. It became all about punishment rather than helping people.

So I gave up my private membership a couple of years ago and started to use the Main Library, and to my utter amazement the opposite shift had occurred among the personnel. There are still a few stinkers working there, but the vast majority are sweet and helpful, even with crazy poor people crapping in their lobby.

Trying to actually find anything specific in the place, however, is a serious nightmare. Not only are books/CDs/DVDs mis-shelved, if they are shelved at all, but the many patrons contribute to the chaos with their own eccentric habits.

I asked for the help of this librarian in finding a copy of Voltaire's "Candide" a week ago and he consulted the computer database which said there were two copies sitting in the "Fiction" section. I went where I was directed but there were no copies, so he checked to make sure that they just hadn't been reshelved. No such luck. Then we tried the "Philosophy" section where the database directed him to a specific Dewey decimal number, but that was no use either. I just happened to look further down the aisle, saw Rosseau, and finally an old Modern Library paperback of excerpts from Voltaire's works, including the entire "Candide."

I felt sorry for the librarian, particularly since I returned the next week, wanting to find MORE Voltaire, who I am finding fascinating. Unfortunately, the library website has to be the worst designed database/website I've ever had the misfortune to use. For instance, in trying to reserve material, you have to go through three or four screens and just when you think you might be ready to meet with success, you click on what seems the obvious next choice and it takes you back to where you started.

Which is when you want to start screaming in frustration and pain. And just for the record, any additional Voltaire volumes were lost in "storage" somewhere, except for a two-volume translation of the "Philosophical Dictionary" which were hiding in the Bayview branch library. I've put in a special reserve for them to be transferred to the Main and will keep you posted.


SantaBarbarian said...

I remember the opening of the new library! I lived up in SoMa at the time and it was within walking distance. I remember being outraged at the destruction of books...and I agree with's criminal.

Never really got used to it. Couldn't find anything. Not enough places to sit and curl up with a book just to get a "taste test" before checking out.

I was laughing at the absurdity of the libarary being very proud that the color they achieved on some of the walls was done with ground up Starbucks coffee beans.

I did love it's starring roll in City of Angels.

Anonymous said...

Michael, by and large I agree with your criticisms - but I must confess I love the huge central space with all the odd angles. Your photos capture it well. However, as you point out, lack of needed shelving space led to "the wholesale destruction of a huge number of books in their collection" and I agree that this is shocking and against the whole idea of a library.

Current library procedure drives me nuts. They stick the bar code in the upper left corner of the front cover - no matter what it hides (title, author's name, part of the cover graphic). In my view a librarian who loved books wouldn't treat them that way. And they've replaced the manual date stamp with a scan and receipt print out. Is it really so much labor to stamp the return date?

I also agree on the wretched design of the card catalog data base. But I've found that if I persist I can often find books I'm looking for if I keep looking. And when I find something I can request it from my computer at home and pick it up at my branch library - so I rarely go into the Main library (except to use the lavatory).

I did a search for author / Volaire and found lots of copies of Candide in various translations with the notation CHECK SHELF. No doubt many of these aren't where they should be - but by placing a reserve from home I avoid the frustration of a fruitless search.

Civic Center said...

Dear Mark:

Thanks for reading and writing. As for "Candide" in the various translations, NONE of them were where they were supposed to be, which was pretty shame-making for the librarian trying to help me. Oh, well.

As for using the lavatory in the Main Library, you have more courage than I do. If something urgent is coming on for me in Civic Center, I slip next door to the Asian Art Museum or go across the plaza to City Hall, which has lovely loos in the basement.

And Miss Cookie Jill, I've long had a constitutional aversion to Meg Ryan so I wouldn't go near "City of Angels" even if it was the last DVD at the Main Library. Nice to hear from you, though.

Anonymous said...

sf mike ,
just request the books trough the internet and stop nagging the well paid public workers..what's wrong with you?? are turning into a republican??you little wasp....
um abraco...

Anonymous said...

Happy to hear that you are home! Love your writing and pictures.

Anonymous said...


Odd what this blog devolved into.

I'm a retired librarian who worked several years in the Main, old and new, and some of the morale problems there were related to the catastrophe that that new building was and probably still is. Though when I left the administration was attempting to improve things. (Good luck! The building would be more suited to storing dirigibles or party balloons than serving as a library.)

Yes, much of the staff at the time was sickened by the wholesale destruction of books and the cover up and lies which were offered to the public to hide the real reason for the dumping, which was that there wasn't enough room for all the books in the New Main. The planning for that new main library was abysmal. And when incompetents make a mess of things they simply stonewall. (Sounds like Washington, doesn't it?) So please try to be understanding and kind to the long suffering staff. Many of them have been through a lot.

Very nice photographs.