The Irony of the Organization of San Francisco Public Library (SFPL)

San Francisco Public is becoming a more transparent organization than it was a decade ago. But ironically, its structure is both transparent and bureaucratic.bureaucracy.

In his article called “Participatory Networks, The Library as Conversation” David Lankes says that libraries are in the conversation business ( Lankes, D.R., Silverstein, J. Nicholson, S. &Marshall T. 2007, p. 2) While his article describes a participatory model of libraries, “transparent” and “participatory” are closely related terms. According to Lankes, a participatory library is one that furthers a conversation between its users and the library ( p. 4). The library is both a participant in and facilitator of conversations (p. 5). On the contrary, he says that key structures in the library, such as the catalog, are often “one-way conversations”(p. 5). A participatory library has features which promote interactions and communications between users and the library, including wikis and blogs.(p. 6-8).

Casey and Stephens describe a concept similar to Lankes’s (Casey, M. & Stephens, M. 2007, p. 2.) They say, “the transparent library establishes ways that our users to talk to us and among themselves with tools like blogs and wikis, community open houses, outreach events and surveys”(p. 2). The shape of SFPL as an organization is that of a pyramid . At the top of this pyramid is the library commission, a seven member body that the mayor of San Francisco appoints. “The Commission sets policy and is responsible for the library budget..” according to an email from Sue A. Blackman, the Library Commission Secretary. The commissioners or library staff initiates policies, she says and it takes a majority of commissioners to approve each policy. .

The organization of SFPL like many large, urban public libraries, is closely tied to city politics, which might explain the type of discourse that occurs at its meetings. Seventeen years ago, people packed the hearings to protest the massive weeding of library books when the main opened a new building. About ten years ago, the library employees union and the librarian’s guild organized the library pages to protest the administration’s plan to fire 15 hour pages and demote 20 hour pages to 15 hour employees without health insurance.

Perhaps its close connection with city politics angers some library users. At least two individuals regularly attend commission meetings and denounce the commission. At one recent meeting these users said the commissioners were corrupt to be reelecting the current president of the commission who was cited by the City Ethics Commission for shouting down a member of the public who was challenging the commission. At another recent meeting, a branch librarian said that the deputy city librarian’s plan to expand hours at the branches was unrealistic and would erode the quality of branch library service. Another member of the public, a teen librarian’s daughter, spoke in favor of opening a new teen center at the main library.

Though sometimes angry, the dialog at the commission is open and transparent. Public comments take place during the first part of the meeting. Audio files of these hearings go back almost two years and meeting minutes go back 12 years and are posted on the library’s web site. A local cable television also broadcasts them. The atmosphere at the commission shows that the conversation between members of the community and the library’s governing body is transparent.

For the first time, last week, I observed on the library’s intranet that the library is composed of a variety of teams, task forces, and committees. I saw a team based structure which differed from the horizontal organization of the workplace, as I know it. The focus of many of these groups is the needs of local library users.These groups include the “Literacy and Learning Area Focus Team.” A goal of this team is to “Provide nimble responsiveness to changes in formalized education that affect our users; and support for literacy needs of residents, regardless of educational level.” Another team is called the “Diversity in Programming Steering Group.” This team’s mission is to create “a balance of programs, exhibits, and outreach to all age groups and communities, system-wide.” Another team is the 50+ services to adults and seniors. It’s goal is to engage in outreach to and programming for the “growing population of active older adults (50+) and isolated senior citizens in San Francisco. Another group is the Digital Media and Learning Task Force. One goal of this group is to create a design for a new teen learning lab at the main library. Yet another group is the adult large print committee which selects large print books for branches.

These staff organizations are focused on meeting the needs of library users from different communities, backgrounds, and age groups. They are similar to what Lankes calls “participatory networks”(p.1). Their existence suggests that the library is trying to engage in a conversation with the surrounding community, and suggest that SFPL is both participatory and transparent.

Another quality of the transparent library is that it provides ways for users to talk to the library and among themselves using blogs, wikis, outreach events and surveys (Casey, M. & Stephens, M. 2007 p. 2). SFPL has all these avenues for interaction between staff and users, except wikis. The twitter page reflects a one way conversation with tweets the library staff about upcoming events. However the Facebook page includes a conversation between library pages and users about book carts and card catalogs. SFPL also has a page of a dozen blogs from different departments and branches. These include a blog from the Chinatown Branch, primarily in Chinese, and a blog from the book arts and history department with historical photographs of San Francisco. While these blogs contain messages mostly from library staff to users, they have spaces for comments.

Another characteristic of the transparent library is that its staff is open to anonymous feedback.SFPL has a user survey its web site which users can take without revealing their identity.

Another quality of the transparent library is that it measures the usage of the technologies on its web site ( Casey, M. & Stephens, M. 2008 p. 2). SFPL counts the number of patrons who visit its web site says Stephen McLaughlin, a librarian who gathers statistics for the library. The library also gets statistics from vendors about the number of searches patrons do in different databases, he says. “I know that data on web hits it used in tweaking the SFPL web pages and that data on the use of the online subscription databases is one of the factors used in deciding to keep or cancel individual databases,” he says.

A teen librarian weighed in on the question of how transparent SFPL is: “I would say SFPL is definitely becoming more transparent,” she writes in an email. She is one of the librarians who is planning the new teen center. Teens are involved in designing this new space and the library is paying these teens who are part of the project, she says. User participation in the planning of services is another sign that a library is transparent.

Now for the note of irony that affects the question of whether SFPL is open and transparent or closed and opaque. The structure of the workplace at SFPL is hierarchical and people who work there have distinct roles defined by San Francisco’s civil service commission. These roles are rigid and involve following rules that are set by the people at the top of the organization. The library commission which the mayor appoints is at the top of this organization, followed by the city librarian, librarians fours, threes, twos and ones, technical assistants, library assistants and library pages This kind of organizational structure, is opposite to the structure of a library which is flexible and transparent.

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The Irony of the Organization of San Francisco Public Library (SFPL)

3 thoughts on “The Irony of the Organization of San Francisco Public Library (SFPL)

  1. Lewis Chen says:

    I recently had an opportunity to chat with some librarians outside of my branch, sort of gauge their thoughts on what a future library would be like and the gist of it is: For smaller libraries, changes and progress are likely to happen. For a big system like San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc., change and progress is glacial at best. It’s good to know a big system like San Francisco’s is becoming more transparent, but it’ll take significantly more time to become that ideally transparent library compared to smaller libraries.

  2. michael says:

    This is a fascinating glimpse into the workings of SFPL shared in a most transparent way. Glad to read the teens are involved in an open process of planning the new center. I agree with Lewis – the bigger the system, the slower it is to change.

  3. Elaine Tanzman says:

    Lewis makes a good point.
    My guess is that many large urban public libraries are so closely connected with their city’s hierarchical civil service system, that it’s hard to initiate change. The new director, Luis Herrera joined the library in 2005 and is doing some innovative things like working with other city departments, like the department of public works (in the case of the branch library improvement program) and the department of social services to hire a social worker to refer the many homeless patrons to outreach services. He, in turn hired other administrators who share his views on creating a more participatory library.

    Change is slowly trickling down to the departments.
    Last week we had a staff meeting which a librarian one chaired instead of the manager and the pages were asked to attend. This is a sign that more open communication is occurring in the library.

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