Education in Oakland

Eat This Book

Posted by novometro on October 2, 2006

The person in charge of securing a victory for Oakland’s first library bond since the late-1940’s told me I’d begin seeing evidence of the campaign this week. Sure enough, a volunteer rang the bell Saturday afternoon with a handful of Yes on Measure N signs and a pamphlet detailing the many ways the bond would improve the Piedmont branch.

The literature emphasized the local benefits and soft-pedaled the $148-million bond’s chief element: A new main library in the shell of the shuttered Henry J. Kaiser auditorium. The woman who came to my door said the new library and the adjacent Oakland Museum of California would form a kind of “cultural district” on the south shore of Lake Merritt. If the bond passes, the quarter-mile stretch between Oak Street and Peralta Park may one day brim with culture, but it will be empty of people. I’ve been to the museum on a Sunday afternoon. And I’ve been to the library on a Sunday afternoon. There are usually more people eating dim sum a few blocks away in one Chinatown restaurant than in both cultural institutions combined.

Chinatown’s Sunday bustle ought to provide inspiration for the city as it decides what to do with the Kaiser should the bond fail to win the necessary two-thirds of the vote. The library option emerged after the City Council scotched a last-minute push from the port to install a permanent world trade expo in the Kaiser. But why are we forced to choose between a library and an ill-conceived world trade center? At the moment, there is really no place to enjoy a good meal and a view of Lake Merritt at the same time. A creative remodeling of the Kaiser could remedy that. Think San Francisco’s Ferry Building meets International Boulevard.

Oakland’s best taquerias, pho parlors, dim sum spots, injera makers, and sandwich shops could share space with upscale patisseries, cheese mongers, and wine sellers. At last, Oakland’s two greatest assets – natural beauty and delicious food from all over the world – would be brought together in one place.

But what about the library? What about the future of literacy in Oakland? Perhaps the Measure N campaign spokesperson was mindful of a Public Policy Institute of California study released in September that showed the majority of voters in California are over 45. She said it’s important that the paramedics who respond to 911 calls are able to read. I don’t care if the paramedic can read so long as he can drive fast and knows how to restart a stopped heart. Either way, a new library in the Kaiser won’t do much for the state of literacy in Oakland.

Measure N supporters will tell you that it would cost more to renovate the current main library than to erect a swank new flagship in the Kaiser. That’s true, if the renovation includes a $13 million parking garage and other features whose absence would not be missed in a perfectly adequate main library. But we don’t need a fancy library. We just need a library that serves downtown, houses the historical archives, and maintains the bulk of the library’s reference materials (a section of increasing irrelevance thanks to the Internet). The excess books that circulate to other branches can be kept in inexpensive warehouses.

If the library does move to the Kaiser, don’t expect great things to relocate to the current site. A library employee told me that one tentative plan calls for turning the site into a youth center since it resides in “neutral turf.” Even if the library doesn’t become a place for the Sharks and the Jets to put aside their differences, history has shown it will be hard to raze it and erect something the city actually needs, like more housing. I would be surprised if the application isn’t already filed to designate it a landmark.

The measure N campaign plans to spend $150,000 between now and November convincing us we should spend $40 a year for every $100,000 of assessed property value to support this plan. Like any bond measure, the proposal includes funding for some much-needed projects. Laurel needs a library. So does East Oakland. Improvements and expansions throughout the system are long overdue. But we can do it for less money and in a way that doesn’t waste the Kaiser’s potential.


19 Responses to “Eat This Book”

  1. JErome Peters said

    Indeed, the library bond is nothing more than funding to build a new main library and a new branch library in the Laurel for the Library’s biggest booster on the Council, Jean Quan.

    I won’t be voting for the bond because it is not only an extremely expensive levy for something we don’t relly need, but because of the utter political cynicism of the process. In the effort to lower the bond amount due to bad results from polling, they removed from the bond the only new branch I would argue Oakland actually needs: a San Antonio branch. So much need for a library, but too few votes to matter, so their branch gets axed.

  2. I am really tried of people proposing the Ferry Building in Oakland. That is retarded. We have no shortage of retail space, and the Kaiser Center is not that much of a destination. Your suggestion is very expensive, also – the library is one of the cheaper things that could be done with the Kaiser Center.

    Regarding the current main library site, the city will probably just auction it off, which would most likely mean a county office building. The OHA and other anti-development types will have their say, but the building just isn’t that historic. Opposing a new main library because anti-growth groups won’t let us sell the old main library is a recipe for paralysis.

    It is very disappointing that you dismiss all of the benefits of having a nice main library. Services that cannot be effectively offered at branches will be housed there, such as legal advice and computer training. The teen zone is great. Parking is good too – it’s really a shame that there isn’t any parking at the main branch. Computer access is paramount to the new library, which can help close the digital divide. Your comment about warehouses betrays a misunderstanding of how libraries work.

    If this bond fails, there will not be a new main library. Maybe San Antonio will get a branch then, but the main library will be closed, we will never have a great Oakland History Room, we’ll never have a computer array that can help close the digital divide (or WiFi at every branch), and we won’t have a public use of the Kaiser Center. There will be no opportunity to for synergy with Peralta, the Oakland Museum, or the new schools slated to be (re)built.

  3. Okay, sorry I called your suggestion retarded, but that’s something I’ve been hearing for a long time. Ferry Building in JLS. Ferry Building at Broadway and Grand (both of those are happening). Ferry Building in the Ninth Avenue Terminal. Now, Ferry Building at the Kaiser Center? Come on. It’s not a destination, it would detract from all of the other things we’re trying to do in retail districts, and it’s a fundamentally flawed concept (the Ferry Building is so overpriced and inauthentic that it can only exist in a tourist mecca). Why do you think that a Main Library would be used less than a food hall? I think it would be used way more, and by a boader cross-section of people. With a cafe, a public plaza with WiFI, and meeting rooms for community use, the new main library will be used more than than any other use of the Kaiser Center. Besides, we all know that if the library doesn’t go there, the city will just sell it off to a prvate company.

  4. I reread your arguments with the pro-library volunteer, and I am really shocked by your anti-library position. Of course a new main library helps literacy! A key element of Measure N is adding community meeting rooms to not only a new main library but also branch libraries. Those rooms provide space for literacy programs, in the community, which are run through the library.

    The Internet doesn’t replace reference collections – in fact, it makes the specialized skills of a refernce librarian more important. It also provides the chance to train patrons to use the Internet. Warehouses are NOT inexpensive, which is the entire point of the “industrial preservation” debate before the City Council. Relocating the library is cheaper than keeping it at its current location not just because parking is desperately needed but also because the main branch is fifty years old and not nearly big enough, and certainly ill-equipped to serve the high-tech needs of contemporary libraries. The Kaiser Center is rotting, and every year it’s closed it’s closer to demolition.

    I sincerely hope that Oaklanders look past the anti-tax rhetoric and vote to build on one of our best assets, our wonderful library system.

  5. novometro said

    I am not anti-library, or anti-tax.

    I don’t think that $115 million is particularly cheap, especially when it is the price tag to replace something that most Oaklanders don’t believe needs replacing on such a grand scale. By its own count, the library’s adult literacy program has served 5,000 people since 1984. Even if that figure were to triple over the next decade, adequate space for the program could be found without taxing each homeowner $40 on every $100,000 of assessed property value. I think only library administrators would argue that illiteracy is a problem that diminishes with a corresponding increase in “acoustically controlled study rooms.” It’s roots are more complex, I’m afraid.

    There is no reason for literacy programs, or other valuable library services like free legal advice, to be offered chiefly at the main. It would probably be more useful for such services to be expanded at branches in poor neighborhoods. The same is true for library computers. Why would more computers at the main library serve Oakland’s residents more than computers distributed throughout the system? The space saved by getting rid of reference books made irrelevant by the Internet could be filled with more terminals, and yes, greater room for those reference librarians whose skills are yet more important.

    If it were only true that public computers bridged the digital divide. Poor people need computers and broadband access in their homes. Thus the emphasis on $100 computers championed by people like Nicholas Negroponte.

    The library is asking for too much. And the idea that a new main library and the Oakland Museum of California will somehow form a cultural district is a fantasy that refuses to take into account what people actually do with their free time. The area will be closed at night except for two times a week when it might be open until 8 p.m.

    Voting against Measure N is not a vote against books, literacy, libraries, or culture. A no vote simply asks the library to craft a more reasonable measure.

  6. Free access to computers does indeed help close the digital divide, and more importantly, librarians, with their high-tech training, are in a position to help teach people to use computers. I’m not claiming that the library is the whole answer, but it’s certainly part of the solution. The bond includes computers and WiFi at every branch, not just the main. The internet does not make reference books irrelevant – do you use WikiPedia as a source? I certainly hope not.

    The meeting rooms are valuable not only for the literacy program but also to community organizations, who currently have a very limited choice of public meeting space, particularly in our densest neighborhoods.

    It is not cost-effective to provide specialized services at branch libraries. There is not enough demand for legal advice to have lawyers go to every branch library. Instead, these specialized services can be concentrated at the new main library, which is next to Bart, several bus lines, and free parking. You want a laywer to troll various branch libraries for days, lecturing one or two people at each one?

    This primary argument for the main library, which you are not understanding, is the need for a concentration of services to better serve the entire community. Without a main branch (and frankly, there will not be a main branch anymore if the bond fails), the neighborhood libraries are too small and to scattered to offer the cutting-edge, skills-heavy training that’s needed now. Legal advice and computer training are our libraries’ current priorities, but I can imagine many more services that are most effectively offered to a larger audience. $115m is cheaper than the SF Main, and is far cheaper than the the cost to retrofit the current branch.

    A vote against N is indeed a vote against libraries. This is our first construction bond since WWII! If the bond fails, the city won’t be able to ask the voters for another bond for two years. By then, the Kaiser Center will be sold off to private interests, construction costs will have ballooned, and who knows what the political situation will be. This is our best chance to upgrade one of our finest city resources.

  7. novometro said

    If there is “not enough demand for legal advice to have lawyers go to every branch library,” then why does the library now offer the program at the Dimond, Temescal, and Rockridge branches? Your argument about the benefits of concentrating services in the main branch contradicts basic library management theory. This from Strategic Management for Public Libraries: A Handbook by Robert hayes and Virginia Walter, 1996: “There is a documented effect of distance upon usage: As the distance from the user to a library increases, the use decreases…” The section makes clear this is particularly so for replicable services, which would include computers and legal advice.

    But my real concern is that a library at the HJK is a waste of space. I am not as frightened of private interests as you seem to be. I can imagine several privately funded outcomes for the HJK that would add to the city’s tax base and create jobs. Two years is not so long.

  8. bgoakca said

    I’m not crazy about moving the main library to the Kaiser Center–in fact, I’d like to see the Kaiser Center remain an “event” center. However, I think NovoMetro’s opinion that the main library’s reference library could be replaced by internet resources is not accurate. There are certain kinds of research I can do very easily on the internet; on other occasions, however, I need the books. I need to move from book to book, searching for sections that might be appropriate, reviewing three or four books at the same time, etc., pulling various books off the shelves to see if they are appropriate or lead me in a more interesting direction For a very straightforward, linear (yes, I did say linear or maybe deductive is the right word) search the internet works just fine. For certain other types of searches, it doesn’t.

  9. novometro said

    I doubt there are many people who are crazy about the idea of moving the library to the Kaiser. I have not been clear on the sibject of the Internet and reference sections. I don’t think online collections will replace reference sections entirely. I do think it has already freed up space and will continue to do so as more material migrates to digital.

  10. Jamie said

    I love the idea of a new library in the Kaiser Convention Center. I walk around Lake Merritt and think how nice it would be to enter that lovely building and browse for books. I find the current Main Library depressing. Whenever I travel to other cities, I visit their Main Libraries and Oakland’s Main Library is a sad comparison. I think Oakland should have a library system that reflects its cultural and intellectual values. Several of the current library branches don’t even have bathrooms! How substandard is that?

  11. novometro said

    Jamie, You don’t have to be the manager of the Piedmont branch to think that Oakland’s library system needs an upgrade. I do, too. I’m afraid, though, that the designers of this bond may have overreached a bit. Your long overdue bathroom may have to wait.

  12. Jamie said

    Piedmont Avenue Library is not owned by the City of Oakland. It is rented from Citigroup and they can evict the library with 30 days notice. Also, the branch is not ADA accessible which I feel is morally wrong for a city facility. Such changes should not wait.

  13. novometro said

    With such obvious needs throughout the system it’s a wonder to me the library put this particular bond on the ballot only five months after California voters rejected proposition 81, which would have delivered millions to libraries statewide. The OPL’s own polling showed that a $163 million bond would fail to garner the needed two-thirds when voters saw that library upgrades and a new main would cost $45 per $100,000 of assessed valuation. Will $148 million and $40 per $100,000 make the difference?

  14. The timing is indeed bad – it should have been on the ballot in June, when a facilities bond for Peralta passed overwhelmingly. I think that voters are in a “no” mood on propositions statewide, not against libraries or small taxes. We will see if $5 makes a difference, but really, harping on the price (which is the cost of a tank of gas) isn’t going to stop most Oaklanders from supporting our wonderful and valuable library system, from a new Main to much-needed upgrades throughout the city.

  15. novometro said

    I should mention that Alameda County voters approved Prop 81. It’s not the money. I’d make the adjustments to my household budget, if I wanted to see the HJK become a library.

  16. Doug said

    “Eat this book”? Go right ahead, NovoMetro, but please open your eyes first before you take the first gulp.I am an avid user of the current Main Library, and I love the place. But good god do we deserve better. The Kaiser Center is on the verge of being mothballed for a deplorably long time–something we’re all too familiar with here in Oakland (see also: Fox Theatre, etc.). At least Oakland (unlike our West Bay city-manque) still has these central landmark buildings, and a skyline unsullied by developers’ wet dreams. To make it a great library–the people’s university–is a grand opportunity. Also, I disagree with your view that it is the wrong place for a Main Library. It’s an ideal location, and will be even moreso once the DD work is completed. This is a neighborhood that will be a thriving place in the years to come, far better than the backwater it is today. To have the Kaiser Center linked with the thousands who live near and adore the Lake, the Estuary and their environs, would be the biggest jewel in the Necklace of Lights. And, a public venue like the Simmons Theatre could be an ideal place for literary, musical, and theatrical events that do justice to who we are as East Bay metropolitan people.

  17. Jane Powell said

    The cost of this bond measure may only be “a tank of gas” if you are the owner of a pre-Prop 13 home. For those of us who bought more recently, and whose homes are assessed at more than $500,000, it will be $200 or more. That is a large chunk of change, especially for people who are already paying the highest property taxes and mortgage payments. People who have somehow managed to buy a house recently are not all rich. I would happily give $200 I can’t really afford if I could give it directly to the librarian at my local (Dimond) branch- but I sure as hell won’t give it to those chuckleheads downtown to spend on cost overruns and custom shelving just because they think we need a fancy library to keep up with San Francisco. And I believe the threats that the current Main Library will just close down if this measure doesn’t pass are not true. Though it is likely that the City will try and sell off the Kaiser Auditorium if this doesn’t pass- selling off publicly owned property to the lowest bidder seems to be their M.O.

    I would also like to point out that for $98 million we could buy 98,000 computers (at $1000 a pop- the City would never get a good deal)- that would be enough to give a computer to anyone in the City who wanted one, or if the City actually managed to get a better deal on the computers, the rest of the money could be used to buy broadband service to go with them.

  18. Alex said

    Thank You

  19. […] have the Ferry Building in the bottom of Broadway Grand. Ellis Partners wants to put one in JLS. Alex Gronke thinks we should use the Kaiser Convention Center for one. Naomi Schiff wants thinks we can fill up […]

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