Taking pride in our city libraries

  • by Reese Aaron Isbell
  • Wednesday February 4, 2015
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San Francisco is experiencing a renaissance in its library system that is unmatched. For a city with a limit of 49 square miles, the San Francisco Public Library system has enhanced our city's valuable public space �" not only through developing its bricks and mortar, but also through an enrichment of our community experience.

San Francisco voters were quite forward-thinking in creating this revival. In the mid-1990s, the city community came together to pass Proposition E in 1994, which earmarked a percentage of city revenue for our library system. Since then, the library has been able to keep its doors open 53 percent more all around the city and seen a 400 percent increase in its budget for books and materials. Further, a bond passed by voters in 2000 renewed our city's multitude of branch libraries in the neighborhoods. Each of the branches has been designed and rebuilt with thorough localized community processes and neighborly collaboration. This allows each respective branch to be instilled with the most relevant resources for its unique neighborhood setting.

Every one of our city's 28 libraries (the main plus 27 branches) has since been able to foster localized community hubs of vibrant communal interaction. Many locations provide community rooms for civic meetings and large children's sections, which encourage kids to read and learn together. Neighborhood activities, civic events, group story times, book clubs, and more are publicly available and shared among patrons. Citywide our library system provides additional opportunities to bring us together with such offerings as an official city book club (One City One Book), summer reading programs, exhibits, classes, and more. Collective activities such as these help develop our sense of community and camaraderie.

Assuredly, for those who want to simply browse books and have solitude, a large collection is at your service and individual quiet rooms are available to cloister oneself. At the same time, private coffee shops have nothing on the latest technological options in our city's libraries. Every building features free Wi-Fi, a plethora of electrical plug-ins, roomy desks, comfy chairs, modern computers, and easy Internet access. Residents of each neighborhood can look to the library "down the street" to help them connect, dialogue, log on, share, make friends, and enrich their lives.

As society has modernized and moved many of our daily activities online, our San Francisco Public Library has upgraded its own technological options. It has begun using a software program called BiblioCommons, which is already in other libraries throughout North America. While BiblioCommons has advancements in searching the proverbial card catalogue, it's unique in that it creates an online social network for those patrons who are interested in joining it.

Similar to the private app Goodreads on smartphones, BiblioCommons would allow library patrons to provide written reviews of books, individualized approval ratings, and to discuss topics through social interaction. They can also easily keep track of books they've read or might want to get to someday. It's a marvelous new adventure for connecting patrons in the library community. Just like any app on a smartphone or social network, patrons do not have to use it and patrons post only what you want made public. BiblioCommons allows for communal discussions and interactions, but individual patrons do not have to be openly public about their library activities. Further, the strongest online and offline privacy controls are in place for all users at the library.

Privacy is paramount for our LGBT community. For me, growing up in the 1980s as a questioning teenager, I spent many hours in libraries searching for more information about being gay. I would often sit in the library's basement, secluded from everyone, and I would read about LGBT life. For extra privacy and public cover, I would envelope my reading with much larger non-LGBT books so no one could know what I was reading. My privacy at that time was truly a life or death period of my life. Because of similar scenarios for each of us in coming out, our LGBT community has a legitimately heightened sense of concern about privacy rights.

Our LGBT community can take pride in knowing that our own San Francisco Public Library system, Library Commission, and city attorney have all delved deep into issues of privacy, worked with members of the LGBT community, and spent years reviewing scenarios and quandaries. In fact, our city's work on privacy rules have been so thorough it has even spurred BiblioCommons to further upgrade its own privacy procedures for its other libraries. This means that the privacy rights of patrons around the world will be enhanced because of safeguards put in place by our San Francisco Public Library. This is yet another example in which our city creates pro-LGBT policies the world follows.

We have the best of all library systems here in San Francisco. We as a city public have upgraded the brick and mortar buildings of each library through smart financial investments. We have created these community hubs and nestled them throughout our individual neighborhoods. We now also have expanded opportunities to grow our city's communal interactions online. And we have mandated the strongest privacy safeguards of anywhere in the world. I encourage you to step into one of our upgraded facilities, or join the conversation online, and experience the unique world-class system of public libraries we have here in San Francisco.


Reese Aaron Isbell currently serves on the board of the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library (http://www.friendssfpl.org) and the California Public Library Advocates (http://www.cpladvocates.org). A former co-chair of the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club (http://www.alicebtoklas.org), he also served as campaign staff in 2000 for the successful citywide branch library bond measure.