Digital Isn’t Everything

Rare photo of Channel Street, San Francisco, formerly part of Mission Bay (when it was a real bay)

The library is like a candy store where everything is free.
Jamie Ford

When the San Francisco Public Library was recently padlocked as part of the city-wide shut-down, this disruption brought home the indiscriminate magnitude of the blight as it careens through society. The library — closed? I never imagined a time when there wouldn’t be a library, somewhere available. By pure luck, I went to the library before the shutdown.

I’ll be honest. I don’t go to the library nearly as often as I think about going to the library. At home, so many unread books are stacked up. It’s a short stroll to the local cafe, where paperbacks pile against the wall, free for borrowing or exchange, enticing my weak spot for serendipity and murder mysteries. That’s where I discovered two Nick Petrie books. Twenty-one blocks away is the library, a much longer hike. Nevertheless, once I get there, the same old thrill pops up: the library is better than free candy.

After hours spent online, I had not found what I was searching for. In fact, I found virtually nothing. There is a lot of information is online. Plenty of companies’ best interests lie in you believing that everything is online. And in these Virus Times, more is online than ever. But not everything; there is breadth online, but not depth.

I made my excursion ten days before they shut San Francisco down. Destination: the History Center. Real research was on the docket; I wanted more details and photos of “Sipp’s Creek” (as it is called in my book, Murkey’s, A Rabbit Noir). Locally, Sipp’s Creek is a patch known as Mission Bay.

The History Center itself is another locale in Murkey’s, A Rabbit Noir, where Marilyn the Librarian helps her friend Webbs, the intellectual spider, find answers to Murkey’s mystery. When she and Webbs get caught in the tunnels beneath the city, Marilyn manages to escape and bring back help. In a pinch, rely on a librarian.

After years of enjoying the District of Columbia Library in Washington, DC, I moved to San Francisco in 1995. Roommates had snagged a place to live (considered difficult then — in no way comparable to the difficulty today), but I had no job. Activities not directly linked to job hunting were deemed “having fun.” I held the (wrong-headed) idea that “having fun” would signal to the job gods that I was not serious in my job pursuit. At that time, my job search was in the field of commercial interior design.

Riding the bus down Divisadero Street, I spent my days at a copy shop. It sounds crazy now, but back then I didn’t own a computer. That took money. The nearest print/copy shop with public computers was at California and Fillmore. I wrote cover letters there. I printed up piles of resumes. I became familiar with the city, and with the offices I was applying at, by riding the bus around and hand-delivering my packets.

Peripherally, I was aware that the old Main Library was on its way out. I considered visiting, but that would have been “having fun.” Busy in my daily routine, I regret now that I never stopped by. Historic photographs show a grand old building; a visit to the Asian Art Museum, located in the building where the Main Library used to be, prove the building was a classic.

In contrast, the new library is an arty hodge-podge of stairways, misdirection and confusing circular floor plans. Signage is poor to non-existent. It’s worse than a trip to the downtown Macy’s Department Store. At least at Macy’s, each floor has a sign identifying your location.

The History Center is at the top, or sixth, floor. Previously, I took the elevator. The elevator goes to the sixth floor. This time, I took the public stair. Logically, I expected to exit on the sixth floor at the top of the stairs. Consequently, it did not occur to me to count each floor. Wrong! The stair ended, but what floor was I on? No signage. The main stair is in a completely different part of the floor than the elevator lobby. The circular nature of the building layout makes it impossible to relate where you are when you take the stair to where you were when you took that elevator last time.

I recognized the floor because I had spent time there on previous visits, making copies of sheet music. I didn’t remember what floor it was, but I knew one fact: it was not the floor with the History Center. How to get there? No indication.

Luckily, a music librarian was handy. They probably get this question on a regular basis. A friendly librarian told me we were on the fifth floor. The stair to the sixth floor? He pointed. Around the corner.

For inexplicable reasons, the route to the sixth floor incorporates two separate stairs. Picture a sixth floor, stuck on as an afterthought, with its own independent stair jammed over in a corner. In fact, I saw this adjunct stair as I exited the 1–5 stair. Of completely different design, it appeared to be private access to a staff area. No arrow, no sign advising, “This Way Be History” or, “Up to Sixth Floor.”

I took the stair. At the top, no clue as to which way to turn to reach the History Center. I turned the wrong way, my natural response to being lost. After a not quite complete circuit around the floor, through curious displays of artifacts, I chanced upon the History Center, tucked into a dark corner.

It is a small, unassuming room. There are five or six long rows of sturdy wooden tables and chairs, where patrons delve into their field of study. A mousy hobbit door is wedged in a corner behind the librarians’ counter. Through this door the librarians pop in and out, carrying forth documents from their sequestered trove. The imagination boggles when envisioning what all is stored behind their hobbit door.

To be assisted by thoughtful humans, whose eyes light up as they comprehend what you are looking for; to then be surrounded by the exact material you had spent empty hours not finding online — because these are documents found nowhere else —such are good times to be savored. And yes, it would have conserved time to walk to the library in the first place.

Now that the library is closed for the duration, I am relieved that I made it to the sixth floor before the lights flicked out and the locks clicked. It was another piece of luck that I took photos of everything that looked useful. Now I have plenty of the past to dig into as I study up on fun facts to use in my next book.

Despite the indefensible botheration of navigating the building, a trip to our library winds up being as satisfying as a trip to any better-planned public library. Settling deep into your curiosity, librarians nearby, loaded up with centuries of tools and knowledge, who can ask for anything more. There is one question that will persist indefinitely: when will libraries be able to open their doors again?