Libraries contain worlds. Epiphanies take place in libraries. Discoveries are made there. Libraries are holy places.
There are a number of great libraries in Los Angeles – the L.A. Main Library downtown, the Huntington Library, UCLA Research Library and its Special Collections, the Hearst Collection at USC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library.
The Santa Monica Public Library has never been great – perhaps because City Hall keeps moving the books, or perhaps because it doesn’t know what a library is.
Andrew Carnegie gave Santa Monica its first and second libraries – a formidable Main Library in the Greco-Roman mode on the northeast corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Fifth Street in 1894, and the Main Street library in 1912. In 1927, the City remodeled and enlarged the Main Library. In 1964, it presumably sold that property to make way for a very ordinary office building, and built a new library one block east at Santa Monica and Sixth. It also built branch libraries on Ocean Park Boulevard and Montana Avenue.
Happily, residents not only know what libraries are, they value them so highly that they have run fund drives from time to time to raise money for each of the libraries, and, in 1998, they enthusiastically passed a bond issue to underwrite an expansion of the Main Library, but, without consulting them, City officials subsequently decided not to expand the existing library, but to demolish it and build a new one.
Unfortunately, when the City Council finished tinkering with the design, it was a massive, clumsy structure with very little space for new books, but plenty of space for a café, courtyards, a million-dollar historical museum, subterranean parking and so on. It was clear that the Council, like the staff, had little or no interest in making a great library, or even a good one. As usual, they wanted to make much more, and, as usual, they’ve made a muddle. The new building that’s risen on the bones of the old library is an insult to both the townscape and the treasure trove it will house.
Though the new “facility,” in the City’s word, isn’t scheduled to open until January 2006, City staff is already planning a major campaign to sell it to us.
Item 1-D on the Council’s consent calendar last week asked the Council to authorize an $85,000 “professional services agreement” with a marketing and PR firm to “develop and produce a community awareness campaign for the grand opening of the new Main Library, assist in coordination (sic) grand opening events and the Library’s ongoing outreach and public education initiatives.”
According to the staff report, “The opening of the new Main Library offers an important opportunity to publicize and raise community awareness of the Santa Monica Public Library, its programs, services and resources. The new 104,000 square foot facility is intended to enhance the quality of life in the community as a meeting and gathering place, a place of study and learning, and a cultural center for the whole community.
“To raise community awareness and encourage participation in the grand opening events of the new Main Library, the Library staff will require assistance in coordinating media relations; developing material for print and outdoor advertising; and webpage development. A ‘look’ consistent with the City of Santa Monica graphic identity, will be developed for promotional material to further establish the visibility of the Library in the community.
“A three year marketing plan to capitalize on the opening energy and material will unify and improve current Library outreach efforts.”
A supplementary staff report said, “…Approximately 25% of this contract ($22,000) is designated for planning, organizing and helping conduct the opening events and coordinating outreach to local media, schools, user groups, and others. Print materials (production as well as creation/design) are approximately another 25% ($21,000). Local advertising and public service announcements are also included. A marketing plan is a smaller part of the budget ($3000), but it will serve the library for years to come.
“Allison & Partners will also be instrumental in assisting the library with partnerships that can defray other costs associated with introducing and celebrating the new community asset. The firm is contributing $10,000 of pro-bono consulting to the effort.
“Additional benefits anticipated from this agreement include: freeing staff time to focus on programs and services; ensuring that promotional efforts will be more effective at reaching the intended audiences; guaranteeing that the documents used to promote programs and to introduce visitors to the Library will be professionally designed for ease of use, a consistent look and with a unified theme; and, developing a long-term plan for communicating with the public about library programs, events and resources.”
Council member Bobby Shriver pulled the item for discussion, and questioned both the amount of the contract and the need for such an elaborate campaign to “sell” the new library to us.
City Manager Susan McCarthy said that the campaign reflected City “policy,” and went on to explain that some Council members had suggested that the City should do more to celebrate the “good things” it does, rather than simply finishing one “good thing” and moving immediately on to the next “good thing.” The ever-loquacious Councilman Richard Bloom agreed and rolled out his familiar old mayoral riff in which he carols the City’s continuing creation of “monuments” and the need for more “community celebrations.”
Thus, in 1998, residents approved a bond issue to expand the library. The City subsequently decided, on its own and very quietly, to knock down the library and build a new one and then decided to make the new library into a “gathering place…and cultural center,” and now it proposes spending $85,000 to celebrate its latest triumph.
The thing is, what McCarthy and her Council pals see as “good things” often aren’t seen as all that good by residents, because they often run counter to residents’ wishes and needs.
Predictably, Shriver’s common sense was overwhelmed by the blatant sentimentality of the City staff and his fellow Council members, and we will spend $85,000 to pay tribute to our leaders and the “good things” they do for us sometime next year.
The devolution of the library is disturbing. Equally disturbing is City Hall’s seeming low opinion of residents. Its patronizing pronouncements, posture and plans all suggest that we are dim and erratic people who don’t know what we want or what to do with what we have.
City staff doesn’t bother to listen to the members of the community who speak at City Council meetings on every project and every issue, preferring to engage in occasional frenzied bouts of “community outreach” that are designed to elevate “community awareness.”
No wonder City staff feels superior to us. For one thing, it has the money — $433 million for the next fiscal year, and for another, it has the power, which it graciously shares sometimes with the City Council. It’s clearly City Hall’s movie now, and residents have been reduced to mere extras, brought in occasionally to cheer, but otherwise unwanted and unneeded.
However, as inevitably happens, the power and money have gone to the officials’ heads, and they’ve gone too far and the extras are no longer cheering.
All the residents we’ve talked to find the notion of “marketing” the library ludicrous – especially since the primary target of the campaign is the people who approved the library bond issue. They not only don’t need to be “sold,” they find the very idea of “selling” something as fine as a library noxious.
And they, like us, mourn the absence of all the things the $85,000 could have bought – several thousand books or longer hours at one or more of our libraries or a children’s reading center or the conversion of the Evening Outlook into electronic files that can be accessed on the internet.
The devolution of the library into a “gathering place” and its marketing, City officials’ apparent eagerness to replace Santa Monica Place with a mega-development, its misbegot Civic Center Plan, and the Planning Department’s continuing effort to radically reduce public review of proposed projects have all drawn fire from residents, and they are on the move now, and, of course, the money and the power really belong to them, and what they have given to City Hall, they can take away.