Oakland’s libraries directly serve more citizens than any other city department. A few years ago, incredible numbers of angry citizens mustered our outrage to fend off Mayor Brown’s proposed branch closings and voted to tax ourselves to preserve these precious facilities.
Now it is time for the next steps. We need long-overdue improvements for the branches and more space for the Main Library. Oakland has the benefit of having seen the mistakes made in San Francisco, where edifice-building took precedence over books and shelf space. Reusing a historic building is an intelligent approach which will help keep our priorities straight.
The branch libraries need more improvements than Measure N provides, but at least it is a start. With constantly increasing construction costs, we should move forward now. At the same time, our city must find ways to increase the hours and strengthen library staffing. Our libraries, and particularly the branches, serve as true community centers for neighborhoods, safe and appropriate places for young people to go after school, and provide the books and computer access and information that our citizens need. The libraries provide the best, most positive citizen interaction with city services—not connected with red tape, regulation, trash complaints, or emergencies.
As a fairly enthusiastic historic preservationist, I see in Measure N an opportunity to reopen the Calvin Simmons Theater for all kinds of music, theater, and public gatherings, while repurposing the underused arena space to create a vibrant cultural hub at the 12th Street shore of Lake Merritt. The grouping of Oakland Museum, Laney College, and a new Main in an old landmark, along with a reactivated theater, would provide a synergy that would help all these institutions to gain audience and public participation.
Not only that, I do want to keep the current main library building in public hands! Public assets are way too valuable to let go and are almost impossible to replace. I dream that once the main library is reestablished in the arena, the current building could house activities for young people, some of our vigorous smaller cultural institutions, and perhaps some adult classroom space.
If Measure N fails, there are people waiting eagerly in the wings to propose private uses for the Kaiser Convention Center. It is hard to defend a vacant building against this kind of proposal. The plan for a main library at the site is economically viable, makes geographic sense, and makes good use of a valued historic landmark.
Beyond voting for Measure N, we should hold the library and city administrations accountable for the promises made to the branch libraries with previous ballot measures. Let’s push for a more intense effort to provide them with staffing, equipment, book purchases, and physical improvements. Supporting Measure N does not give the library administration carte blanche to build a glorious empty shell; it is up to us all to make sure that our libraries present a full program and have what they need to connect the citizens with each other and with the knowledge and information that creates successful democracy.
Vote yes on N.