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A Library Fit For A King

A Library Fit For A King

University, city officials pool funds, resources to build an institution for all ages

By Pamela Burdman


SAN JOSE, Calif.
San Jose’s spanking new library, the nation’s first city-university library, is confronting an unexpected problem in its first few months: success. The library is simply much more popular than city and university officials had expected — or planned for.
On Aug. 1, six years after San Jose State University’s then-president Robert Caret and the city’s then-mayor Susan Hammer hatched a scheme to pool their resources and build a library that neither on its own could afford, the new Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library opened on the northwest corner of the university’s downtown campus. 
The vision was to integrate not just the two library collections, but to link the campus with the community, offering lectures and other programs, making the library a gateway to the university. So far, that seems to be happening. 
Instead of receiving its millionth visitor in April, as originally projected, the library is expected to hit that milestone by early December. And while those figures, officials acknowledge, could be explained partly by an increase in people just dropping by to see the new building or using the slick glass-and-concrete structure as an attractive corridor to and from the central campus, that very trend vindicates their concept of creating a more central role for the library.
“Libraries play a great equalizing force in our society and one that’s essential if society is to flourish,” says Dr. Patricia Senn Breivik, the university’s dean of the library. “It’s a place that symbolizes the need for lifelong learning.”
“The hope is that a child comes into the library as a kindergartner and then steps out one day and continues to the university,” says Bob McDermand, the library’s outreach coordinator. 
Though it will take 12 years to know whether that scenario comes to pass, campus officials are encouraged by the anecdotal evidence. Faculty and administrators have reported seeing more families on campus, for example, than in the past, according to Breivik.
“We’ve always had programming and lectures that the public’s welcome to come to,” Breivik says. “But the campus seems like foreign territory and many people don’t realize that it’s okay for them to go. Now that we do programming at the library, it’s much easier for people to find it.”
At 475,000 square feet, the King Library is the largest all-new library west of the Mississippi (libraries with more square footage are the result of additions to older libraries). It cost $177 million in city, state, university and private dollars.
Visitors to the corner of Fourth and San Fernando streets enter a large atrium surrounded by eight floors, with 3,600 seats (more than double the capacity of the two old libraries combined), 480 computer terminals and 3,000 data ports.  
The building houses 1.3 million volumes, including materials in 58 languages, with room for up to 2 million. It boasts 33 art installations including a digital reader displaying a real-time record of the number of books checked out and a glass vessel in the shape of Martin Luther King’s profile that emanates skin tones representing the citizens of San Jose. The whimsical art collection alone is worth a visit.
But sightseeing alone doesn’t explain the library’s popularity — officials say patrons are actually checking out more books. In September, for example, after school started, campus patrons borrowed some 46,000 books — more than double last year’s count of 22,000 — and public patrons checked out about 163,000 volumes, a considerable increase from last year’s check-outs of 114,000.
That’s great news for those who fear the demise of libraries, but a mixed blessing for public organizations constrained by the state’s budget crisis. In particular, library officials were amazed to discover students and faculty are checking out more materials from the public library’s collection of 300,000 books than from the university’s one million volumes. A significant portion of the increase is accounted for by popular books, tapes, and DVDs in foreign languages, especially Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese, of which the public library boasts a large collection.
“We’re having problems because we’re much too successful,” says Judy McTighe, project manager. “The people in circulation are overwhelmed.”
Library officials are looking for ways to reduce the lines — creating a separate drop-off spot for returned books and rearranging the lobby so that the automated checkout lines are more accessible.
That is an interesting turn of events for a project that was once opposed by a large number of faculty concerned that public use would disrupt the library’s scholarly atmosphere and theft or vandalism would degrade the collection. But behind the idea of the joint collection was the fact that the peak times for public users are nights and weekends, which tend to be down times for campus libraries (except during exam season). Most of the faculty opposition was blunted by one simple fact: The reality that the campus was likely to get either a joint library or be stuck with the 40-year-old Wahlquist Library. 
The new building is drawing in more students in need of a place to study in between classes. Though all floors are open to any users, those who want quiet head to one of the top four floors, where little or no conversation is the rule, cell phones must be switched to quiet mode and only covered drinks are allowed. The lower floors are reachable via escalator, and there, conversation is permitted and food is allowed.
Computer science sophomore Brian Chan says it’s a great place to study. He used to walk home to do homework, but now he stays on campus and heads to the library. “Everything’s, like, wired up,” he says, taking a break from his math homework. “It’s clean and more inviting for students. It’s a better environment to study in than the old one.” 
But a few hold-outs, like senior Annica Castañeda, say they preferred the old library. “I’m having more difficulty finding the books I need,” she says. “It’s not bad, but it’s kind of noisy. Sometimes there are children running around. It’s distracting when you try to study.”
Among library workers, the excitement of being in new space seems to be helping smooth over the tensions inherent in integrating two staffs and in dealing with 12,000 users on peak days — vs. the 8,000 that was projected. 
Along with other public institutions in the state, the library is bracing for cuts of up to 20 percent. “If the budget is as black as people think it’s going to be, there are going to be some real challenges,” Breivik says.
“This is a terrible time for budget cuts. Scarcity of resources always strains relationships,” Light says. For example, public libraries often have the option of reducing hours, but university libraries simply can’t opt not to staff the reference desk, for example, or close on weekday mornings. 
Still, whatever challenges lie ahead, the two leaders say they don’t regret the marriage of their institutions. 
Light notes that she started out managing a 100,000 square-foot library that was 30 years old and had no room for expansion. Now she is in charge of almost 250,000 square feet of the combined library, but only paying for about 170,000 square feet. 
“Both of our libraries have traditionally been underfunded relative to our peers,” Light says. “So we are libraries of average-at-best distinction. Taking this risk was the only chance we’d get to move out of that permanent position of being middling. This was a one-fell-swoop opportunity to do something interesting, something innovative, something that people want to invest in. I felt we should grab it or be condemned to mediocrity.”

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