The Two Faces of San Francisco Public Library

San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) is structured differently as a public agency and as a workplace. I will look at  the characteristics of the  hyperlinked library  in the White Paper  The Hyperlinked Library (Stephens 2011), and see how they apply to SFPL.

In his White Paper, Stephens says that the hyperlinked library is “open and participatory”(2011). He adds that “The organizational chart is flatter and team based”(2011). Furthermore he says that “Hyperlinked library services are born from careful trend-spotting, an application of the foundational tenets of librarianship and an informed understanding of emerging technologies societal and cultural impact”(2011).

The renovation of the Richmond Branch Library, the second busiest branch of SFPL, involved consulting with many community groups. The library did a community needs assessment in 2003 involving reviews of census data, community meetings, and a town hall meeting (Shaffer, DY 2003). The recommendations from the community groups included space for more local information and studying, and more activities for children (Shaffer, DY 2003). The The staff recommended study space for teens, more books, computer assistance for older adults and more outreach to schools (2003). The administrators solicited feedback from the community, and the vision for the library was that of a community space.

A search for the Yelp page on the Richmond Branch had 49 reviews with an average of four stars and comments like “this is a great community place.” This branch, as well as the main and other branches in the system rents laptop computer and provides technical support to users.

The Main Branch provides interactive access, including links to Facebook and Twitter, and a place for anonymous feedback. It has a chat screen for reference available during the library’s open hours.
It has useful sites like Kids Click which lets kids search for materials using the dewy decimal system. The library also offers many programs for different age groups. which shows it is more a community space than just a building for books. . Five years ago the library also expanded its scope by purchasing Link+ a system for getting library materials from Bay Area public and academic libraries. Patrons can order materials through the catalog from these libraries and get them in several days.

Oakland Public Library, a poorer library got Link + in July 2012, which shows that richer libraries like SFPL have better access to new technologies than poorer ones.

SFPL has begun new programs to expand its role in the community. In 2012, Library Journal chose Louis Herrera, the city librarian at SFPl as librarian of the year. An article in LG shows some of the ways that SFPL has broadened its role.

The children’s department where I work has many programs such as art exhibits by children and a two and a half month summer reading program. Each branch has its own summer reading program.

However, though SFPL is a hyperlinked library in some ways, its organizational structure is horizontal. The library employees belong to many classifications, including librarians one, two, three, and four, technicians, and pages. People in the different classifications rarely communicate about issues in the workplace. While a conversation exists between the library and the public, little takes place between workers in different categories. There is team work between people in each classification but little between workers in different classifications. Workers in different classifications rarely collaborate on the same project.

Several organizations, govern the workplace, the civil service commission and the employee unions. Collective bargaining agreements determine workplace rules. One such rule is the reassignment rule which says that employees in the same classification get the first chance to apply for jobs in the same classification. This rule, which the union supports makes it easier to get a lateral transfer, but harder to get a promotion making the workplace less flexible. Like many modern workplaces the structure of SFPL is undemocratic.


Shaffer, D. Y. (2003). Community Library Needs Assessment Richmond Branch Library, San Francisco Public Library.

Stephens, Michael. (2011). The Hyperlinked Library. A TTW White Paper.



The Two Faces of San Francisco Public Library

4 thoughts on “The Two Faces of San Francisco Public Library

  1. michael says:

    You share some particularly interesting insights about SFPL. I am glad they have utilized user feedback for improving branches.I hope it continues.

  2. Lewis Chen says:

    Same classifications down here in Los Angeles. Certainly in a large library, they don’t want part-timers intermingling with full-times nor different classifications with each other unless it’s some cross-classification project. Less strict in smaller branches where everyone doesn’t everyone’s job.

  3. Elaine Tanzman says:

    Hi Lewis:

    Does your library have different classifications for library pages? At SFPL we have two tiers of pages. Some are 15 hour and others are 20 hour. The 20 hour pages have health insurance while the 15 hour pages do not. The library considers the 15 hour pages temporary employees and they have to re apply for their jobs every six months.

    About ten years ago the library administration threatened to fire all the 15 hour pages and reclassify the 20 hour pages as 15 hour pages. This occurred during contract negotiations between the city and the union and I think the city was using the page issue as a bargaining chip to get the union to make concessions on issues like wage increases for all city employees.

    Many pages and other employees went to union meetings and a union lawyer was there. The city then backed down and put all the 20 hour pages on a civil service list so they could become “legitimate” permanent employees. They also did not fire the 15 hour page. This process wasted a lot of time because the HR department held mandatory meetings during work time about this issue.

    We also have PTANS, part-time as needed librarians who are on call and have no benefits. Some are long term employees. The library uses these librarians to fill positions when permanent librarians are absent. They often cover the reference desk. The library says that using these employees give the library more flexibility in allocating staff.

    The use of temporary employees makes the workplace undemocratic but makes the library more flexible in the way it allocates staff. As far as I know, the union has not
    contested the use of PTANS.

    What library do you work at in Los Angeles? Do you also have PTANS?

  4. Henry Mensch says:

    Large workplaces are, in my experience, generally undemocratic. I’m not sure how using part-timers makes any workplace “undemocratic,” though. Library systems throughout the Bay Area use personnel similarly–I regularly see job postings for part-time as-needed librarians in library systems in the area.

    I think unions often contribute to difficult work environments–in exchange for protecting a handful of incumbents they make things difficult for others.

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