A San Francisco Public Library effort to chip away at The City’s English literacy rate—as 47 percent of adult residents, or 296,000 people, read at an eighth grade level—has attracted criticism from at least one long-time library gadfly.
The SFPL is planning to replace a section of the fifth floor’s under or unused periodicals with a Literacy and Learning Center, aimed at increasing San Francisco’s literacy rate. According to SFPL spokeswoman Michelle Jeffers, to create the new center, the SFPL has moved several thousand periodicals to an off-site storage facility. After a two-week re-cataloguing process, the magazines will again be accessible, though patrons will now have to wait 24 hours for staff to retrieve the materials, Jeffers said.
But, critics—lead by the Library Users Association—accused the city’s librarians of executing a “semi-secret” plan to “evict” the several thousand magazines. In a press release sent to many members of local media, the LUA announced the “decimation of access to the San Francisco Public Library’s magazines,” attaching two documents, one which argued that the move would “destroy core library functions” and another announcing that “browsing is over.”
In a conversation with the Appeal, LUA executive director and founder Peter Warfield reiterated the points in his organization’s release, saying that moving the materials offsite prevents immediate access, and amounts to a net loss for patrons who benefitted from browsing physical copies of aging periodicals. Browsing is especially important because it allows for more in-depth research with the materials, and the new system makes it impossible to recreate the experience of serendipitously looking through the stacks with the new system, he said.
However, Jeffers says that the periodicals are rarely used by patrons, and library staffers were unable to recall the last time a request was made for the materials in question on the fifth floor—even since the books have been moved to the warehouse, Jeffers said. The only questions from patrons have been about the construction.
“To date, staffers familiar with the fifth floor materials have not had a single question about [the moved magazines],” Jeffers told the Appeal.
Library staff selected the site after examining numerous possibilities in the main branch. Staffers picked the fifth floor spot because it will disrupt the fewest number of services and will make maximum use of the available space, Jeffers said.
Jeffers also categorically denied the existence of a “semi-secret eviction” plan, and had a strong objection to the language the LUA used to describe the changes. “That cheapens the experience of those people who are truly affected by evictions and loss of their living spaces,” she said.
When asked about the LUA’s criticism that the SFPL’s plans have not been well marked on the main library premises, Jeffers admitted that there are no signs posted as of Monday, but claimed that fifth floor would have appropriate signage as of today.
“It was planned that there would be signs up, and they are going up,” she told the Appeal, “I’ve seen the signs myself.”
An ongoing challenge for the SFPL is keeping the digital catalog up to date—and with thousands of volumes recently unavailable the process is ongoing. Thus far about two thirds of the material is listed as “unavailable” and the final third will be updated today, Jeffers said.
“The whole section will be re-catalogued in two weeks for paging retrieval,” meaning at that point patrons will be able to recognize that an item is available from the paging desk in the digital catalogue.
In spite of the LUA’s objections over the loss of browsing and accessibility, the SFPL maintains that the Literacy and Learning Center, the overall the budget for which is about $750,000, will be a net benefit to the city and to its patrons. Not only because the re-located bound periodicals were infrequently used, but also because the new center will help improve the literary lives of the SFPL’s patrons.
The new center is a part of the Library’s Project Read, a decades old program aimed at improving adult literacy through one on one tutoring. “The new Literacy and Learning Center on the 5th floor will combine Project Read with other literacy services including family literacy and technology literacy and multilingual literacy needs for our community,” Jeffers said.
According to Jeffers, the program has thus far helped over 10,000 people, and “changed lives.”