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City Hall takes a whiff at what ails San Francisco's public library

As a card-carrying patron of San Francisco Public Library I've long had mixed feelings about it. And by it, I mean the architecturally-splendid main library at the Civic Center. Librarians, bless their souls, are a favored class of people in my book (pardon the pun) and the ones at SFPL, including those at the San Francisco History Center on the sixth floor, are graciously helpful.

But, for distinctly San Francisco reasons, the place is a contradiction and was even before its doors flung open in 1996.

As part of the (at the time) cutting edge push to emphasize computerization in the new building (which boasts more than 300 terminals) the old library packed off 200,000 books to the landfill, essentially gutting one of the great research repositories on the West Coast. That happened during Willie Brown's tenure as mayor and ultimately cost the then-library director his job.

But the real contradiction is that the library is and has been since its inception maybe the world's most ornate homeless shelter.

Let's put it this way: it didn't take long for that "new" smell to be replaced by the kind of pungency best left to the streets nearby. You go to the restroom at SFPL at your peril, where, often as not, a transient is taking a bath at a sink, or lighting up, or mumbling something incoherent.

As a Sunday piece in the Chronicle notes:

Recent notable incidents include a man urinating on books and another breaking a computer with a hammer.

Which gets us to why this is worth mentioning. That would be Mayor Ed Lee's recently-announced stab at solving the library's famously entrenched human behaviorial problems. He's proposed--get this--a Family Education and Fun Zone around the library. As part of it, the library commission is already dusting off its toothless code of patron do's and don'ts with the aim of imposing actual penalties, including expulsion for repeat offenders, for such things as sleeping on the furniture, bringing carts inside, and, on the personal hygiene side, exhibiting a "strong and pervasive odor."

Whether anything comes of it is anyone's guess. But, this being San Francisco, both the mayor's office and library officials are hedging their rhetoric lest they be accused of trying "to single out any population," as mayoral spokesperson Christine Falvey is quick to deny. Like, say, transients who've turned the magnificent building into a day lounge. Already, some of the city's professional advocates for the homeless are calling the proposed odor rule just plain mean.

Smells like trouble.

Photo: Creative Commons

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