Ellen and I were recently commissioned by the San Francisco History Center to revisit my 1994 photographic survey of all the branch libraries in the City. This was the study that began all our subsequent work on libraries throughout the United States and more recently in other parts of the world. The 1994 work was my first attempt at understanding the architecture of infrastructure and how to photograph it. We are still working on it.
Recently, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly approved the renewal of funding for the San Francisco Public Library. This ensures that the library’s services and operations will be funded for the next twenty-five years. The Library Preservation Fund was first approved in 1994, the year I started my survey, by over 70 % of San Francisco voters. It allowed SFPL to expand its hours, collections, programming and rebuild or refurbish each of the 26 branch libraries. In addition, the city has built a new library in rapidly expanding Mission Bay. After almost 30 years, we were curious to see what San Francisco got for its generous funding of this essential city department.
San Francisco has received a lot of bad press recently in the national and international media. Some of our problems have been self-inflicted. Unfortunately, parts of our city government are on par with other big American city governments for dysfunction, ineptitude, and sometimes outright corruption. But some of the right-wing media loves to beat up on our famously liberal city to prove that all liberal policies just don’t work. I wanted to do something to counter that drumbeat of depressing stories about our hometown. What San Francisco has done with its public library system is astonishing. Along with building a world-class public park system, our city has placed a lot of importance on improving the shared commons of our unique community. Along with the rest of the country, we are facing enormous problems of income inequality, homelessness, crime, and drug addiction. But the sum of San Francisco is more than that, and this project is our way of fighting the negative stereotypes by showing the positive results of a well-run public library system.
To further our understanding of our city today, Ellen came up with the idea to travel to each of the public libraries by public transportation. What better way to understand THE PUBLIC than this? We were like excited little kids running after a bus going to the Mission branch library. This was the first branch I photographed in 1994 and it seemed appropriate to start here. We then got on BART for the short, one-stop ride to Glen Park. The old library I originally photographed in 1994 is now, appropriately, the famous Bird and Beckett bookstore and the neighborhood now has a beautiful new library. We then caught the bus that meandered over the hill and back to the library in our own neighborhood of Noe Valley. The restoration of this old Carnegie library was gorgeous.
The next day we caught the bus near our house to the Western Addition. The librarian there told us of the large Chinese and Russian community that uses the library. The book collection reflected that ethnic mix. We walked to our next stop at the Presidio branch library which is also an old Carnegie that has been beautifully restored. The Beat writer Richard Brautigan wrote about this library, and we paid homage to a display of his work. Learning to navigate the San Francisco Muni bus system was made easy by Google Maps on our phones. But learning which were express busses was sometimes a little more challenging. Taking the Geary Blvd bus all the way to western edge of the city was a long haul but worth it. The Richmond branch and the Anza branch were some of the most beautifully restored libraries we had seen so far.
Our third day of marathon public libraries on public transportation was one of the best. Early in the morning, we caught the bus down the hill to the Castro and the Eureka Valley branch library. There was an incredible display throughout the library on “The Cockettes: Acid Drag & Sexual Anarchy.” It reminded me of the crazy, pre-AIDS time when the Castro became the Gay Capitol of the World. The landscaping outside the library, however, spoke to our more sober time. Mission Bay has a new library close to the famous Giants ballpark. It is a beautiful little gem that is enhanced by the nearby Mission Creek walkway park that opened last month. We then hopped on the ”T” Muni line that took us to the Bayview branch library. This library had been almost entirely rebuilt since I was last there in 1994. It was inspirational to see our city build one of the most beautiful libraries in one of the most economically challenged neighborhoods in San Francisco. We continued riding the “T” trolley line to our last library in Visitacion Valley. In 1994, the library was in a rundown storefront. The city has recently built a brand-new library in this rapidly changing part of SF, and it is one of the most beautiful so far. As we took the long trolley ride back home, I reflected on what a positive force the San Francisco public library system is for those of us lucky enough to live here.
We photographed 11 branch libraries in three days. We will return to our library odyssey in the next few weeks when we will complete visiting all 27 branch libraries, the Main Library, and even a Bookmobile or two. Stay tuned…