Whose Library Is It?

Funding for the New Main Library has activists wondering about the private sector's role in the public institution

Foundation supporters stress that they are open to changing, or crimping, their role and privileges if these offend people's political sensibilities. "If the library users say they want longer evening hours, that's what they'll get," says Steve Coulter, the library commission president and a former foundation board member. "Look, I'm a small-d Democrat as well as a big-D Democrat, so I understand these points."

But Hale and his fellow critics are not mollified. And protestations by the foundation that it will merely be a fund-raising arm and not a policy-shaping body are not entirely accurate. By opening or closing its purse, the foundation will make its mark.

Coulter admits that if the library asks the foundation to fund a project it feels would be politically or culturally unpopular, it may decline to raise the money. "If they propose something like the Qaddafi collection or something like that, the foundation would likely take a pass," says Coulter.

And Coulter freely admits that Sherry Thomas, the executive director of the Library Foundation, sits in on library administration meetings.

To hand policy power to a private entity -- no matter how limited that power is -- is anathema to the ideal of a public institution, Hale says.

Already, the foundation's values have been felt in setting a tone at the New Main. Hale and others point out that when the library and the foundation set about deciding what kind of food-service outlet to have in the New Main, they opted for a for-profit cafe and didn't think about the need for a cafeteria setting for brown-baggers.

Giving the foundation a role in picking a concessionaire may not seem like a major shift in public policy. But consider this: Under the MOU, all donors have a right to confidentiality. How then does the public know that donors don't have a financial interest in picking who runs a cafe, or what events management firms are chosen to run the foundation's events -- another provision of the MOU?

But like it or not, the arrangement with the foundation will only become more important as municipal revenues continue to dwindle in the coming years. "You have to be entrepreneurial now," Coulter says. "Public money isn't going to be there forever."

Be sure, without the foundation's fund-raising efforts the New Main Library would be second rate, rather than the stunning and richly appointed building we have.

Because the MOU is open to negotiation, San Francisco now has a choice about the future of the library. Take money from corporations and individuals to make the library first rate. Or, turn them away, and content ourselves with limited collections and other library resources. In the process, San Francisco will have to reorder its two chief desires: pure democracy and a high level of public services.

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