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Wednesday, Jul 12 2006
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James Chaffee hates the freaking San Francisco public library system. He thinks its collection sucks. Nothing gets his blood boiling like people who donate money to the group that raises funds for it, Friends & Foundation of the San Francisco Public Library. He has sued the local public library commission dozens of times, alleging improper procedures at public meetings and improper use of public money. In fact, he estimates that he has filed 21 library-related lawsuits, including single suits against the department of elections and the state attorney general.

"I haven't won them all, but I've gotten some recognition out of every lawsuit — from the city, from the librarians, from whoever," says the 59-year-old Excelsior resident and ballroom-dancing aficionado, who prefers not to disclose his occupation. ("I don't tell my day job; we're all citizens of the country, all citoyen. Class and social distinctions shouldn't matter.")

Chaffee insists that the library system has lost its way. "They threw service out the window. They're focused on the pandering to philanthropists and cyber nonsense," he complains. "They buy all the classic bestsellers in New York, and they neglect all the rich local independent publishing that goes on."

(City Librarian Luis Herrera responds: "[O]ver the last several years we've focused on increasing the funding for our library materials and our collection. This year alone we're looking at about a million-dollar increase. That allocation is for books. We're making a concerted effort to increase and enhance our collections. ... We're projecting about 2 percent increase in loans this year.")

Chaffee saves the brunt of his wrath for the main library, which he says was specifically conceived for the purpose of hosting niche fundraising parties. "There's a little gay room, and a little Latino room, and a little Chinese room, each set up for fundraising. They dedicated them to the people who raised money for the foundation."

On his poorly designed Web site, www.saveourlibraries.com, Chaffee posts cryptic black-and-white cartoons and screeds with titles like "Glen Park ... the latest Betrayal." He also tackles fun subjects such as radio frequency identification tags. The Board of Supervisors is considering placing these "spy chips" in books, he warns: "Aficionados of caper movies and old James Bond novels know that a very small radio frequency device will allow a person to be tracked without his knowledge." (Of course, aficionados of facts know that passive RFID tags have no power supply and a fairly short range.)

Sure he's pissed, but he's been pissed for a long time: For 31 years he's fought the system. And for what? "The libraries have gone from bad to worse," he laments. "Believe me."

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Ben Westhoff

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