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By Jay Thorwaldson

About this blog: I was editor of the Palo Alto Weekly from June 2000 to January 2011, capping a more than 50-year career in journalism and writing since Los Gatos High School, where I was editor of the student newspaper and president of the speech...  (More)

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On Deadline Blog: Palo Alto Main -- Will it be a main library by any other name?

Uploaded: Sep 10, 2013
The firestorm that has flared up over the possible renaming of the Palo Alto Main Library is beginning to rival some of the forest fires ravaging parts of California and the West, and there is no sign of any significant containment.

It's producing a lot of smoke as well as heat, according to emails and Town Square online-forum entries.

But the core issue isn't what the Palo Alto Main Library is named, although that could be a fight in itself, one supposes. The issue is the credibility of the city staff in charge of the sweeping redesign of the Main and other libraries. Most notable is the major redesign and expansion of the Mitchell Park Library and Community Center. Huge delays and cost overruns of the Mitchell Park rebuilding/expansion project have created an equally huge credibility factor.

Long overdue and over-budget, that complex will be a striking addition to the city's library roster. People will, ahem, need to check it out for themselves to see if the modernistic design is as horrible as some debate contributors maintain or if it's a sleek modern facility worthy of Palo Alto's next century or so.

It also seems there's more than a touch of irony in that libraries -- and their stock in trade, books -- are center stage in an era of online communications, digital books and enough Internet chatter to distract the ancient language gods from their jobs of running the world.

But so far library use is not just holding steady but growing, in Palo Alto at least, according to reports. Books still are popular, but other uses -- such as study and socializing centers for students after school, and places for older persons to hang out.

Years back, Weekly reporter Bill D'Agostino spent a day at the old Mitchell Park Library and noted that by midafternoon the older-person population drifted away to be supplanted by an invasion of high-energy teenagers.

Similarly, the Main Library renovation of the 1958 Main Library building will include a 4,000-square-foot addition to house four group-study rooms and a teen center. It will have an upgraded electrical system to accommodate residents' computer needs.

So libraries, as they long have, will be serving an after-school refuge in a world of two-worker households, books or no, and as a place-to-go refuge for older persons with retirement time on their hands. This drop-in-center use echoes findings of a series of focus groups in the 1990s. The groups found that people wanted primary and branch libraries to be places to meet with friends and relax.

Also, as usual, the fear of losing something, such as traditional classic books, fuels much of the heat of the debate, sometimes raging hotter than the flames of any totalitarian or religious book-burning of times past. The online exchanges, fraught with insults aimed at city staff and library supporters, allege incompetence and even willful deception about the future of Main, as it has been called for the past half century plus five years.

"We drank the kool aid served up a few years ago ,as provided by FOPAL," one critic went to far as to assert, referring to Friends of the Palo Alto Library -- ignoring the trade-mark capitalization of the flavored drink associated with the mass poisoning at a cult location, Jamestown. This should go down in history perhaps as one of the greatest bad-taste overstatements of our time.

There have been attempts to calm things down, such as a Guest Opinion last February by Alison Cormack -- who led a successful $76-million library-bond campaign in 2008 -- in the Weekly this year: http://www.paloaltoonline.com/weekly/story.php?story_id=18492. Cormack won a Tall Tree Award for outstanding citizen for accomplishing the "impossible" bond approval of about 70 percent, following disastrous earlier attempts a half dozen years before.

Cormack cites details of what went wrong with Mitchell, some steps taken to avoid mistakes on Main, and how the costs were shaping up for all the library construction. She also announced success of a $4 million fundraising campaign to furnish and equip the revamped libraries.

"Let's also review the expenses," she wrote. "The 2008 bond authorized up to $76 million. Downtown came in $1 million under budget, Mitchell Park is projected to be $4.7 million under budget, and Main is projected to be $2.6 million over budget, due to changes in the landscaped and parking area and the need to replace, not repair, the roof.

"So, in total, the projects should be completed for less than what was approved."

The column and extensive coverage stage by stage by reporter Gennady Sheyner are worth reviewing: A search at www.PaloAltoOnline.com will be beneficial for anyone who wants to chime in intelligently on the topic.

Teenagers aren't the only ones who might benefit from doing some homework before raising their hands and voices to say something.

Note: Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at [email protected] with a cc: to [email protected] He also writes regular print columns for the Weekly.

What is it worth to you?


Posted by Not an issue, a resident of ,
on Sep 10, 2013 at 3:51 pm

""We drank the kool aid served up a few years ago ,as provided by FOPAL," one critic went to far as to assert, referring to Friends of the Palo Alto Library -- ignoring the trade-mark capitalization of the flavored drink associated with the mass poisoning at a cult location, Jamestown. This should go down in history perhaps as one of the greatest bad-taste overstatements of our time."

I am one of those people that made this comment regarding the kool aid (not sure if there were others).

Perhaps Jay you should become familiar with the current usage of the term:

Web Link

""Drinking the Kool-Aid" is a metaphor commonly used in the United States that refers to a person or group holding an unquestioned belief, argument, or philosophy without critical examination. It could also refer to knowingly going along with a doomed or dangerous idea because of peer pressure"

It is commonly used.  Of course, your claim that it " should go down in history perhaps as one of the greatest bad-taste overstatements of our time" is an example of one of histories greatest exaggerations. But everyone is entitled to their own opinion (unless it upsets the weekly editorial staff)

Posted by Is-The-Orange-Koolaide-Better-Than-The-Grape?, a resident of ,
on Sep 10, 2013 at 4:29 pm

I wonder how many Kindle/iPad/iPhone uses care what this mausoleum is going to be called. It's a massive waste of money in an age of digital communications. Maybe adopting a name that has a bit of the "old west" in it--like "Fools' End", or "Last Stop"?

Posted by Resident, a resident of ,
on Sep 10, 2013 at 4:32 pm

Before we get into debate about the meaning of koolaid, let's get to basics.

Our old library buildings were in disrepair and there was a vote to repair them. There was no choice other than yes or no. Yes, the buildings were in disrepair and needed upgrading, but we had no say in whether we wanted a library service of 5 libraries or just one large, full service library plus childrens. We had one discussion about Mitchell Park which failed due to tennis! After that, I think it is true to say that many people just wanted to get some action so basically voted yes just to update Mitchell Park.

The question of whether we want one large library was never asked to Palo Alto voters. Just whether or not we wanted our libraries updated. Of course we wanted to update, but did we want so many libraries?

Now, we have these buildings (at least almost) and libraries filled with books are going the way of the dodo bird. We don't need anything more than a check out shelf and desk at a community center. Most patrons do not peruse shelves of books making a choice what to borrow. Most people who want a book look at the catalog online, wait for an email saying that it is in the library they requested, and then pick it up from a hold shelf and check out the book. Where these books are stored is really not an issue to most library users.

On top of the hold system and the reminder to renew or return, a library is now really just a community center, a place to read, use electronics, shelter from the rain or the heat (after all the new buildings should no longer close when it is too hot) and perhaps pick up a book from the hold shelf.

We do not need 5 buildings with shelves of books. We do not need qualified librarian staff pointing to the right shelves. We do need pick up and drop off facilities. We also need the libraries to be open as many hours as possible to make them accessible to busy residents. They need to open at the same time each day and close at the same time each day. They need to be open at weekends and into the evenings. It should not be necessary to check the calendar to find out if today is the day it opens late or closes early, because that should not happen.

I, as many other people at the time, was not happy with the way we were treated before the vote because we were never asked what we wanted in a library. I was disappointed at the way the PTA, FOPAL, and others misled voters saying "it was for the children", or "the buildings are in such a sad state we really must do something before they fail completely".

I am not alone in saying that I am pretty disgusted that at present we have two temporary locations. Two of the city libraries I have never visited. I don't go downtown much and I have never been to College Terrace library and have no idea where it is. I do use Main and Mitchell Park, at least I used to use both. They both were charming buildings but definitely needed updating. Either could easily have been made into a fabulous cityserving library with satellite checkin/out facilities at all our community services. Instead we are still waiting to see what Mitchell Park will finally look like and Main has relocated temporarily, we shall see how much longer this state of affairs continues, but I am not holding my breath.

The question of what our libraries will look like in ten years' time is still a good one. The question of what they will look like in one year's time is also worth asking. I have my doubts that we will know the answer.

Posted by Free computers, a resident of ,
on Sep 11, 2013 at 11:22 am

Many people go to the Main Library to use the free wi-fi, not for the books. Why not just go to a cyber-cafe? Oh, yeah, you might have to buy something.

Posted by Jay Thorwaldson, a resident of ,
on Sep 11, 2013 at 8:15 pm

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

Granted, Kool Aid has a broader meaning than mass poisoning. But as a La Honda resident for some years not long after the Pranksters departed, it also meant drinking LSD, as I recall -- the proverbial acid test of someone's Koolness? But in all cases it's capitalized, I believe, as a trademark. Ah well. Point well taken anyway. Never did much like the watery stuff anyway. Jay

Posted by bru, a resident of ,
on Sep 14, 2013 at 5:29 pm

bru is a registered user.

> Never did much like the watery stuff anyway. Jay

Someone I know swears by the stuff. He says plain Kool-Aid dissolved in water without any sugar in it is a great refresher on a hot day. I don't even know where the sell the stuff anymore to try that.

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