Politics – San Francisco

The San Francisco Public Library
Article: The Plunder of the San Francisco Public Library
By Walter Biller, Jim Kirwan & Suzanne Slade

San Francisco Public Library


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All images are © kirwan, all rights are reserved (unless otherwise noted).

High Tech Barbarians at the Gates
The Plunder of the San Francisco Public Library
By Walter Biller, Jim Kirwan & Suzanne Slade
Reprinted from San Francisco Frontlines of June 1997

This is about a War that was waged by a small group of people, nine years ago, that refused to allow the public library to become a corporate “proving ground” for ever-greater corporate profits at the public’s expense. We (the activists) actually succeeded in bringing this issue into the national spotlight. The article has been reprinted here as a reminder to everyone that individuals can and do make a major difference, on many fronts ~ if they will only try!

Brooks Hall- The People’s Library… there are a million books and periodicals in an abandoned convention center called Brooks Hall under San Francisco’s New Main Library at Civic Center. This is the result of a $200 million dollar scam the likes of which San Francisco has never seen before. When we voted for Proposition A in 1988, we approved a library “which would hold the expanding collection for the next twenty years.” Simply put, we were burned.

Maybe you don’t care if nearly half of the collections of the most important public library in the West are buried in a scene right out of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. They don’t want you to care. You are stupid, they think, and if their plan succeeds, you and your children will stay that way. A stupid customer is a good customer. If you disagree maybe this article might get you mad enough to save yourself and your children now, while there’s still time. The flood is coming baby. They are washing your world away. Cynical? Hell yes, wait until you hear the whole story.

This story thanks to the diligence of a handful of loud, expressive, media-oriented folks, is a national one now. Hell, international. New York Times, Newsweek, The New Yorker, Harper’s, The LA times, Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer, local affiliates of ABC, CBS, and NBC,CNN, BBC-these book lovers don’t play soft-ball. They are asking tough questions: Where are the books? Where is the money? This article will address these thorny issues.

Where Are the Books

Imagine a world without books. Your friendly telephone companies PacBell, Pacific Telesis, (Telesis from the Greek, the purposeful use of natural and social forces; planned progress; New World Dictionary, 1972), has done just that. They call the plan “Building the House of the Book.” In PacBell’s vision of the library, “If it’s not in here, maybe it doesn’t exist.(This was PacBell’s motto for their Yellow-Pages until a few months after this article was written.) They even made a video: Library of the Future (© 1988). In this 12 minute vision, they show us a world where women are computer slaves, librarians are history, books are gone, and technology has replaced God. This film is not for children. This movie is not for smart people. This movie is the plan. Visit the New Main. Ask to see Brooks Hall. Expect to be denied. Nearly half of the library’s collections are there.

Inside the new building, nearly 60 per cent of the library’s remaining books are in closed-stacks, hidden behind locked doors. You can’t see them or touch them. The building itself is hostile to books. Conveyor belts eat the books. Old, rare books, once kept in locked, dust-proof cases, are now kept in the hell of Brooks Hall with the rats, the underground humidity and the feral cats.

Of the building’s 363,247 square feet, over one third is useless for either books or computers. THEY spent $46 million of your money on non-book functions: atriums, light wells, television and sound studios, galleries, a coffee shop, a gift shop, and some big metal art. At $365 per square foot, there are 20,000 square feet of space used for nothing. NOTHING. That’s $7.3 million right there. That’s 20,000 square feet of space guaranteed to help bring about the PacBell vision of “The Library of the Future.” The most expensive room of all is suspended four stories in the air, three floors high inside, enclosed in glass and steel; containing perhaps the most precious books to remain in the PacBell House of the Book: the nation’s telephone books. Cruel joke or dire prophecy? After all, remember: “If it’s not in here perhaps it doesn’t exist.

This new library was planned; it was no accident. In a 1987 planning study conducted by library consultants Becker & Hayes Inc. , it is made clear that books and periodicals must go. The study states, “The library will pursue and active “weeding” program in the next two decades to extend the useful life of the facility.”

It also states that, “up to 50 percent of the material could be located off-site.” Enter Brooks Hall-here the plan becomes reality. So while the voters in 1988 were being sold the grand “world-class” library, for which their millions in tax money were necessary, the planners were planning their “Library of the Future.” You have already paid: Which future did your money buy?

Where Is The Money

Over 71 percent of San Franciscans approved Proposition A in 1988 to provide $104.5 million for the New Main Library which would double the existing footage. This was money just for the new building. To furnish and equip the building, a public-private partnership, The Library Foundation, was contrived. Here’s what happened…

Steven A. Coulter: Entrepreneur Extraordinaire

Today’s Library Commission President, Steven A. Coulter, has been on the commission since 1988, with one brief interruption under mayor Jordan. In addition to his duties on the commission, supposedly representing the public, Mr. Coulter was the cheerleader in charge of raising money for the Foundation. On April 12, 1996, a week before the new library opened, Coulter told a global audience via 15 national and three international satellite downlinks from the College of San Mateo (blacked out in San Francisco) that the Foundation had raised $34 million in private donations to furnish the New Main Library. Coulter said, “We have 17,000 donor families, institutions,(&) foundations. We have raised just under $34 million in private money…” In the Friends of the Library 1996 Annual Report, Coulter’s $34 million had become only $22 million. What happened to the other $12 million?

In exchange for its legal right to exist, the Foundation promised to raise $300,000 annually for the library. In the first year of that agreement, the Foundation raised only $54,000. In a twisted quid pro quo, the Foundation then charged the library $150,000 for its services. That’s a Deficit of $96,000 this year. Add to that the $1 rent on their spacious new offices(which cost you the taxpayer $365 a square foot) and you’ve got on hell of a raw deal.

By the way, guess who Steven A. Coulter works for? He’s the leading vice-president for Pacific Bell, the Area Director for Pacific Telesis of Northern California, and the San Francisco Director for Pacific Telesis Group (the grant-giving foundation of Pacific Telesis). In the old days, before the “Library of the Future,” this was known as an illegal conflict of interest. Ethics? Remember. “If it’s not in here, maybe it doesn’t exist.”

Kenneth A. Dowlin – Legacy of the Fall Guy

Dateline: San Francisco. On October 17, 1989, San Francisco was rocked by a major earthquake. At the Old main Library, thousands of books fell from the shelves. This event provided City Librarian Ken Dowlin with a dream of dreams. From this earthquake, Dowlin derived a New World Order for his books and collections. He would completely re-organize the library to accommodate his own vision. Instead of moving quickly to restore services, Dowlin and the Library Commission decided to use the opportunity to make major changes.

Dowlin’s strategic plan called for a three-tiered approach. The Alexandrian Project would result in a new building; the Herculean Project; that he described as the “cleaning out of the Augean Stables,” and the “Mercury Project,” which would consist of an integrated computer service allowing public access via computer modems to the library.

In 1989, with books on the floor, Dowlin applied to The Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) for a grant of $1million. With this money, no matter what he told the feds, he would initiate all three of his Greek inspired points of action.

Herculean Project – Purging the Books

As Dowlin gazed upon the fallen books he decided to “collapse” their categories. This trashing of the Dewey Decimal System he called “leveled access,” a folly that remains in place today. The result was to complicate public access to the books. He heaped hitherto skillfully organized and indexed collections, e.g., sports, poetry, labor issues, etc., into large unmanageable super-categories. He moved the libraries periodicals, many being completely unbroken runs dating from the 19th century, into an abandoned hospital in the city’s Richmond District. Another Foundation Booster and library commissioner, Dale A. Carlson, vice-president of the Pacific Stock Exchange, helped orchestrate this shell game, arranging for the covert facility with the aid of Senator Barbara Boxer. For his efforts, those miles of stacks became known as the Carlson Stacks, a term of derision defining the separation of the books from their public. Today, much of this material, primarily due to citizen and librarian resistance, has reached the temporary shelter of Brooks Hall.

Mercury Project

With his $1 million in Federal relief funds, Dowlin bought computers. His ultimate choice was a Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) supercomputer that drove his online Public Access Catalogue (OPAC). It’s cost to date $14 million and counting. It seems than rather than ask the public for the money to buy the system, he made a midnight deal with DEC. But if the computer was to be financed, then the (city’s) Board of Supervisors should have voted on it. They weren’t even consulted. Today this system is user Unfriendly. It can’t be adequately updated because of its age. Ask anyone you know who has tried to use OPAC if it worked for them. A recent fill-rate study shows that patrons found only 37 percent of the books they were looking for. A writer to Harper’s said, “Vast sums of money have been spent on new technology of dubious value. The excellent old-technology of the book is being sacrificed to that end.”

The Alexandrian Project & the New Main Library

Ken Dowlin’s plan called for building the New Main Library as a communications center-the Alexandrian Project. We know, of course, that the Library of Alexandria, the greatest library in the greatest city of Ancient Egypt, was destroyed. Containing the works of Plato, Socrates, and other famous scholars, {The Library of Alexandria was burned} – its many pagan books and manuscripts were completely destroyed by people who would not tolerate them in their new world. Apparently Ken Dowlin, the architect of the phone company’s “Library of the Future” felt much the same way. Books must go. Computers must thrive. It’s ironic that Dowlin chose to name his program for a Library whose books were destroyed.

A number of Dowlin’s metaphors were mixed. He should have seen himself not as Mercury, the messenger of the gods, but as Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. Early in 1996 Dowlin’s wings would melt as the library’s budget hemorrhaged money. Dowlin would resign. The builder of dreams spent nine years creating the Library of the Future. It took just nine months for his political wings to melt, resigning under public pressure he fled in his Winnebago camper to points south. Today, the “New Ken Dowlin” is running for President of the American Library Association. If he wins look for this “visionary” to spread his work around the nation at the expense of the printed world. (note: Dowlin lost)

Mayor Brown’s AUDIT – NOT!

In June of 1996, library critics called for an audit of the public library. In January 1997, at the time of Dowlin’s well-publicized resignation, the audit began. Unfortunately the audit would not answer the critic’s questions: “Where are the Books?” and, “Where is the Money?” Willie Brown assigned a management consultant, Elizabeth C. Reveal of Coda Partners, LLC of Washington D.C., who in California was unlicensed, unregistered, and not certified to conduct an audit. And some of the same library administrators who created the problems in the first place were assigned to her audit team.

The public called for an audit to establish what the libraries assets are and how it had been spending its money. But an auditor is only as good as the information made available to her. We know that funds were diverted from the book budget to buy technology in violation of city laws. We know that the library eliminated by attrition the lower level working staff who were needed to provide services and at the same time increased the amount spent on upper management positions. One of the findings of this audit was that the library was in trouble because of personnel costs, when in fact, a full third of the budget was devoted to technology. A $10.2 million Management Support Services line item paid for over one hundred unbudgeted technology-support positions.

The audit largely by-passed Brooks Hall. (The same) Brooks Hall where, as we all know, One MILLION books are stranded. The day before the audit’s release, the audit dream-team met with Mayor Brown and the City Controller, the City Attorney, Steven Coulter and his Commissioners, along with corporate spear-chucker and Board of Supervisors President Barbara Kaufman. They created a PR slogan: The library was “a victim of its own success.” This was a lie. SFPL spent over seven years preparing for success, and in fact, was prepared for more patrons than they currently have.

Responding to the “victim” headline, one writer to the San Francisco Chronicle offered this retort. “It’s like that old joke.

A man murders his parents and pleads to the judge for mercy because now he is an orphan.” When active citizens, some of whom had studied the library’s finances for over a decade, cried “Foul,” they were told to beat it. After all, in this audit, as in the Library of the Future, fiscal responsibility like ethics and citizen involvement is obsolete. Don’t forget: “If it’s not in here it probably doesn’t exist.

Coulter’s Citizen Advisory Committee

On March 4, 1997, Steven Coulter, a.k.a. Mr. Phone Company, proposed at the Library Commission meeting that he appoint a “Citizen Advisory Committee on Collections Management.”

Mr. Coulter initiated this unusual step to counter and at the same time kill the public’s input in resisting his outrageous takeover plan for SFPL.

Even some of his most vocal supporters couldn’t swallow this one. What Coulter was actually proposing was a hand-picked committee without any democratic process. This would lock out both the public and the librarians from deciding which books would be “tossed” and which new books would be acquired-as well as where within the library the new books would live.

Every “citizen’s advisory” committee or City Commission have the same problem: they are hand-picked individuals – mostly selected by the Mayor – who do not represent anybody but the interests of the Mayor and those funding his and the political machine’s electoral war chests.

Twice blocked and with the public ninety-eight percent against him, Coulter still forced this issue onto the Library Commission’s agenda, with a six to one vote. There is no precedent for the appointed representatives of the public to delegate their responsibilities to their private and/or their corporate friends (that was nine years ago – today it is obviously much different). If Coulter’s Citizen’s Advisory Committee becomes a reality, you will never be represented on it, or by it. This tactic is not only distasteful, it is probably unconstitutional. {This too failed after the public loudly began to resist}

Beginning With Proposition E in 1994

In the Spring of 1994, four out of five voters, thrilled with anticipation at the unveiling of the New Main Library, approved Proposition E at the ballot box.

In doing so they amended the Charter to double the library’s budget and quadruple the book budget. Their action made the San Francisco Public Library System, the wealthiest in the nation. The libraries $17 million budget became a $36 million budget. Poverty was no longer an issue at the Public Library.

As the adage goes, “Be careful what you wish for.”

Upon first learning of this development, Ken Dowlin, then City Librarian, was heard to say: “That’s more money than we could ever spend.” As in nearly everything else, he was wrong. In the 1995 budget year, the library not only spent its $36 million, it ran up a $6.2 million deficit. This resulted in at least three appeals to the Board of Supervisors for supplemental appropriations. But even these buckets of money were not enough. The administration and the commission also diverted the $4.5 million annual book budget to defray the soaring costs of Dowlin’s technological delusions. That money was supposed to be for books and the staff to make them accessible. In fact, book budget purchases have been cut every year since fiscal year 1994/1995, the period when the book budget was quadrupled. For most of 1996 book purchases were frozen.

PacBell’s “Library of the Future” has an insatiable appetite for public funds. The phone bills for SFPL topped $860,000 in 1995/96. This year’s figures are unavailable, but since another hundred computer terminals have been added, bringing the total to 400, one can assume that internet access fees, where the bulk of the costs to the public occur, have only increased. When the business plan excludes competition, you can hear Ross Perot’s “giant sucking sound,” In this case that refers to PacBell/Pacific Telesis {now AT&T}. They just can’t get enough. But the funds aren’t there. Maybe that’s because, “if it’s not in here, maybe it doesn’t exist.”

(NOTE: On May 14, 1997 Acting City Librarian Kathy Page asked for and received another $2 million supplemental appropriation from the Board of Supervisors to cover on-going operating expenses. The budgetary chasm is deepening)


In a bold and daring move, Pacific Bell and pacific Telesis threw in their lot with Coulter/Dowlin to forge a new “Center for Information Technology and Communications.” SFPL was to be the Petri dish, a national showcase for high technology and communications, which is the principle underlying the architectural design of the library. In fact, PacBell/Pacific Telesis are only more mundane profits. The telecommunications/ computer companies are plundering the SF Public Library, the City and every other public institution by overselling their products, connecting unnecessary new technology to services rendered by them and are cashing in on civic interests. This is a “business” Mr. Coulter, as a high executive works for PacBell, knows very well.

City laws mandate competitive bidding for services. Yet Coulter/Dowlin bought first and told the public later. Telecommunications contracts were not open to competitive bid. For this reason alone Coulter should resign. He and his rogue administration have subverted the City’s legal requirements in that important area. The libraries finances are the victim. You are the victim. Most importantly your children will be victims unless serious changes are made-by the public.

The Libraries 1996 Annual Report says, “In just one month of operation, the library’s internet address was accessed 64,000 times.” This figure which represents 780,000 hits annually, gives us a measure of the heavy internet traffic generated at the library. The profits to the phone company come with access charges to those calls, both for connecting and disconnecting access. That profit includes incoming and outgoing calls, both voice and modem. That’s one hell of a lot of money, which your institute generates for Mr. Coulter’s employers. I wish we could say more about these costs. We can’t. the contracts are undisclosed.

The new library was designed to be a high-tech showplace which could service the digitized, telephone-modem accessed information economy which the telecommunications giants foresee for the 21st century. The long-range costs are staggering. For example there is the digitization of books, often referred to by technical advocates as a potential substitute for the printed word. Digitization has its place; particularly when it comes to preserving works printed on acid-based paper, which dissolves. But the costs forbid mass applications. If just the San Francisco’s Public Library’s photos and maps were digitized, based on the Library of Congress cost-benefit projects, this project alone would cost more than $500 Billion and would require 40 years or more to complete. When will San Francisco have an extra 500 billion available for anything, much less for its library? And the real complication involves the copyright laws which are the actual reason why most things are not digitized today. Remember this the next time you’re told, “All books will be available on line.” That’s pie in the sky.

Computers are a natural part of any modern library, but at what cost to you and me? The prudent and resourceful library planner would have gotten the most appropriate technology at the best price. One wonders how the 75 databases within SFPL meet this criterion. There may be money in this for digitization and telecommunications firms, but as for library patrons and taxpayers looking for practical and useful solutions-hey, “If it’s not in here, maybe it doesn’t exist.” If the best interests of the users is not the driving force behind the huge investments, then corporate welfare is the real reason behind the plundering of the Public Library.


The San Francisco Public Library employs hundreds of skilled, professional librarians. Some librarians have vocalized the problems and resisted the Library of the Future. A new term has been added to the lexicon, “guerrilla librarian.” This defines efforts to save books from destruction, hiding them in personal lockers, or stamping them so that they appear to have been in recent circulation. Other librarians have gone along to get along. Over 250,000 library books were weeded from the library in 1995; many old, rare, and last copies. These books and periodicals did not walk by themselves to the Department of Public Works dump trucks that took them to landfill. They were carried. Individual librarians have stood up and said, “Yes, I did it, and I hated it.”
When book-weeding reached the national press, it temporarily came to a halt. The administration quit tossing books and developed a more public relations-oriented approach.

They began Adopt-a-Book Giveaways,” held every Friday afternoon. When this new form of book disposal was focused on by the press, this practice also ceased. Today thanks to the courage and determination of those guerrilla librarians and the library critics, books intended for disposal are stored in Brooks Hall. But they’re in huge untidy piles, hidden behind a plywood wall especially crafted by administrators to hide the crime. Let’s call it the Wall of Shame.

Responsibility for collections is a basic part of any librarian’s job. It is one of the professional standards in the industry. Yet, if the librarians had gone public with their administrator’s marching orders early in 1995, the killing would have stopped. This situation required more than discussion, more than petitions; the situation required dedicated and concerted action. This did not happen. Today, the library remains in crisis, and the collections remain at risk. The administration is waiting for public scrutiny to lessen so that they may finish dumping the books. Acting city Librarian Kathy Page, who was responsible for seeing that the new library could hold all its books, failed. Today, she hints at a plan to close individual floors of the new library to add shelves. That’s why the Library’s Audit contains only one bland sentence about Brooks Hall-if the public knew of the miles and miles of books and periodicals stranded there, that public would also know that such a plan was architecturally impossible. Unless of course, most of those collections were tossed. It’s up to the librarians to stop her.

The librarians must rise and bring a clear and final end to the destruction of the collections of the city of San Francisco. Of course jobs are on the line, but so are professional ethics, professional standards and the librarian’s commitment to their public. It’s not just what they should do; it’s what we pay them to do.


San Francisco is currently beset by several dangerous and divisive issues at Civic Center. At the core are divisions over the Asian Art Museum’s intended use and adaptation of the Old main Library, a classic Beaux Arts building. Some of this controversy has been caused by the fact that Brooks Hall contains over a million books that need a home. On April 23, Mayor Brown told the San Francisco Chronicle, “Since the year-old New Main Library, doesn’t have enough space for books and periodicals, the Old main should have been kept for storage.” Like the Asian Art Museum, which began with a huge private collection donated in the 1940’s, Brooks Hall’s collections also deserve a facility. It has been suggested that the Old Mint, located at Fifth and Mission Streets, on Newspaper Row,” should be utilized to relieve the pressure. Another plan involves tearing the odd-shaped back off the new library on its Hyde Street side, and adding five floors of additional stacks. Unless and until leadership form the Mayor is demonstrated with clear, decisive action, the crisis will continue.

But even if the new buildings assigned to correct the damage done are obtained, that will in itself be an indictment of the preposterous, incompetent way in which the local political machine governs San Francisco: New York, Los Angeles, and Boston somehow kept their old libraries for research and collections when they built the new ones. Not in san Francisco – the City That Knows How. At the time of Proposition E they promised to build a new library with double the physical space. Well before we had about 250,000 square feet; now we have only 183, 814 square feet out of a potential space of 365,000. The remaining 179, 433 square feet is devoted to meeting rooms, auditoriums, book shops, cafes, light wells, stairways, or other functions not directly related to the library.

This city needs its citizens to rescue its library from the clutches of corporations, corporate fronts such as the Library Foundation, and one-term politicos who would possess and destroy this public institution, founded in 1878.This library over the years has received donations, priceless collections, and outpourings of good will. Its benefactors expected their gifts would be cherished And enjoyed down through the generations. In addition, San Franciscans have poured tax payer dollars into this institution, only to see it watchdogs destroy its treasures and its good name and sell the remainder to the highest bidder.

Who Watches the City’s Watchdogs

In May of 1996 the San Francisco Civil grand Jury returned a damning verdict.

“In the KMPG-Peat Marwick Strategic Plan for Information Technology” (1996), the City Controller, as the City’s chief fiscal officer and auditor; does not currently maintain adequate budget records or budget information concerning city computer assets. The inability of the City to collect an inventory of what computer assets it owns is a serious problem. Without such an inventory the city cannot know if theft occurs or how to plan for upgrading equipment.

The city’s annual budget request process does not adequately address how much is spent on computer technology. The City Controller is unable to determine how much of the General Fund is appropriated to computer technology due to inadequate accounting procedures.

When asked by the Civil Grand Jury, “How many PC’s are owned by the City and County?” No city official could answer this basic inquiry. (Since) a property inventory control number must be drawn from a specialized city fund it is logical to assume that a master inventory should exist.

Total city spending on information technology, likewise, is a mystery. During the mid-1980’s a study prepared for the Mayor’s Fiscal Advisory Committee indicated that $60 – 90 million was spent on technology annually. Interviews with key city officials revealed estimates that this amount is now closer to $20 million. (it) is estimated city spending (is) about $100 million per year.

When asked by Civil Grand Jury, the controller was unable to an estimate of technology expenditures stating that departments do not follow standard budget accounting when it comes to purchasing computer equipment or services.

Neither EIPSC (Electronic Information Processing Steering committee) … nor the Controller knows how many computers are owned by the City. There is no uniform vocabulary and there are no unified accounting methods to track the acquisition of computer equipment and services within the budget process.”

The City did not respond to these dire warnings. In March of 1997, the same national auditing firm, KMPG-Peat Marwick, sent a 34-page letter to the Mayor and the City Controller, Ed Harrington. On April 23, 1997, Peter Byrne of the San Francisco Investigator used a public records request to obtain this letter which should have closed down the City of San Francisco. Instead, it was hidden from the public, the press, and even from affected department heads.

Some of those affected departments include the City Controller, the City Treasurer, the Assessor’s Office, the Mayor’s Office, the City Attorney, the Airport, the Water Department, Community development, Employee’s Retirement System, the Port Authority, Worker’s Compensation, Contract Retentions/Liens Payable, Data Conversion, and DPW Accounting.

Locally, neither of these two reports from KMPG- Peat Marwick-including sub-reports from Williams, Adley & Company, Chek F. Tan, Hood & Strong; and Deloitte & Touche-seemed to merit a story. On May 6, the Examiner ran a two-column puff piece by Leslie Goldberg on page A-3, entitled, “Auditors chide City for its bookkeeping.” This article downplayed the looming disasters. These two reports taken together describe a city in fiscal chaos ready for bankruptcy.

The 1996 report opened the door for a serious audit of EIPSC and thecomputer technology of the City.

A serious audit of the library would have laid open the core problems which underlie the city’s financial problems. For this reason politicians caught in their webs of deception, could not allow a “real” library audit to go forward. Mr. Coulter as one of those politicos, is particularly vulnerable to any allegations of fiduciary failures.

These are real dollars, your dollars, (and) just like the library’s books; your money is at risk-this City’s fiscal credibility is at risk. The City’s four year, $19 billion dollar budget is on the line in this affair. Can you afford not to question what is really going on?

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