A White Elephant By the Bay

SAN FRANCISCO--As Widener Library slumbers in the dimness of a year-long renovation, the new San Francisco Public Library shines in the California sun a continent away. For a budding scholar accustomed to Widener's overbrimming stacks, tiny windows and rustic chain-link and gun-metal decor, the glossy Main Library in San Francisco's Civic Center seems like a revelation, the Tiffany's of libraries. Four years ago architectural critics and booklovers alike predicted that the Main would set a new standard for libraries--a spiffy, sparkling alternative to old caverns like Widener. But as the glow of newness fades, the Main is looking more and more like a white elephant, a politically correct community center with precious little academic heft.

The $137-million main branch of the San Francisco Public Library, which opened in 1996, was meant to become a literary monument. In contrast to its predecessor, sometimes called "a urinal with books," the new building is architecturally immaculate: The gleaming white-tiled facade is both dignified and contemporary, while inside, a white atrium rises to a huge round skylight that fills the building with light.

The furnishings are self-consciously expensive and up-to-date, from quietly ornate hardwood desks to glass-backed carrels with individual modem access. The library even boasts the requisite huge, unattractive art installations of the kind found chiefly in modern civic buildings. And it's crammed with helpful amenities, including a top-floor exhibition gallery, a roof terrace, an auditorium, an "educational guidance center" and a cafe.

So tasteful and forward-thinking is the Main Library that it's almost possible to overlook its biggest lack--books. Bookshelves seem like an afterthought amid the "centers" and galleries that line the building, so much so that the stacks are omitted entirely from the map distributed at the information desk. The entire general fiction collection, for instance, is contained in one row of bookshelves along a single wall. While the Main claims about a million books, most are hidden away in special compact stacks accessible only to staff members, or in underground storage areas from which titles must be specially requested. Several floors of the building lack any bookshelves at all. A city report published early this year calculated that the library will require millions of dollars in renovations after only four years just to accommodate its growing collection.

While entire collections like fiction are pushed unmarked to the side, the library does highlight certain specialized categories of books in "centers" with their own stacks and reading rooms. Most are devoted to identity groups, a reward for heavy fundraising efforts in minority communities: the African American Center, the Chinese Center, the Filipino American Center, the Gay and Lesbian Center. The library's Rainbow Coalition feel is rounded out by a large international center with foreign-language books, and even an Environmental Center with books about conservation. The San Francisco Public Library may be the first in the country to be organized around Democratic core constituencies--Al Gore '69 could accomplish a full day of campaigning just by taking the elevator between floors.

If the politics of this system is suspect--one suspects a library's organization shouldn't coincide with its fundraising drives--then the intellectual integrity is more so. Each center is an independent reference collection whose books do not circulate, implying that their internal unity is too important to be disrupted by library patrons.

But is identity the most logical or academically honest way to classify knowledge? Consider the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center, which achieved a brief moment of fame two years ago after conservative senators tried to use its more prurient components to block Hormel's nomination to be ambassador to Luxembourg. Alongside the racy books that so flustered Jesse Helms are such bland fare as Love, Ellen, Betty Degeneres's heartwarming tribute to her lesbian daughter, or the newest biography of k.d. lang. Academic tomes about lesbian and gay studies nestle alongside gay personal finance books and travel guides. The selection spans the Dewey Decimal System, with books selected not for their specific subject matter, their intellectual approach or even their merit, but rather for their presumed appeal to gay and lesbian readers. That appeal, moreover, is calculated as narrowly as possible, so that the mere mention of gayness in a book's title qualifies it for admission. A reader's understanding of homosexuality might be profoundly influenced by Nabokov's Pale Fire or the tales of Henry James, or by Shakespeare's plays or Homer's epics; instead, the Hormel Center offers The Gay Book of Quotations.

Such an approach would not be quite so offensive if the library had equally strong centers devoted to poetry, or English literature, or biology, or history or art. But aside from a few seemingly random choices (the Business and Technology Center, the Steve Silver/Beach Blanket Babylon Music Center), virtually all the centers focus on particular racial, ethnic or sexual minorities. The library's mission statement declares that the Main Library is dedicated to promoting "the joys of reading for our diverse community," but the centers interpret that diversity in the most literal sense. A "center" for black readers ought to contain more than books on race; a gay man or woman might have interests beyond k.d. lang's life story.

Worse, the centers encourage heterosexuals and white people to consider themselves exempt from critically examining topics like sexuality and race; rather than encouraging such study, the centers ghettoize it. In fact, the library as a whole is itself the most appropriate African American Center, the ideal Gay and Lesbian Center; the best place for readers of any race or ethnicity or sexual orientation seeking to broaden their knowledge and their perspective on the world. The actual users of the Main Library are an eloquent confirmation of that fact. On a weekday afternoon they sprawl on the expensive chairs and sit at the wired wooden desks, reading contentedly, together in the stacks. As a symbol of diversity, a homeless man and a suburban teenager sitting next to each other absorbed in books beat hands down an officially sponsored reading room, however attractively wood-paneled.

A San Francisco Public Library brochure quotes the head city librarian: "Modern libraries are becoming much-needed community centers for people." No doubt community centers are fine things, but libraries already have a job to play. The Main Library should take a page from Widener: Forget fancy atriums and identity politics. The chain-link fences don't matter. The library should be a home for books; the architecture will take care of itself.

Adam A. Sofen '01, a Crimson executive, is a history and literature concentrator in Pforzheimer House. This summer he is writing greeting cards and gift books in Berkeley, Calif.