The Quiet Revolution in the San Francisco Public Library


Libraries reflect and validate the cross cultural character and personality of the towns and cities where they’re located. This is as true for San Francisco, where I live, as it is for other places which I have known, whether Oaxaca, Mexico, London, England, Saint-Sulpice sur Tarn in France, and Huntington, Long Island where I was born and raised. In my hometown, books with titles such as Labor’s Untold Story (1955) by Herbert Morris and Richard O. Boyer, were removed from the shelves in the days of the Red Scare. My father, who was a civil rights and civil liberties lawyer, saved Labor’s Untold Story from a bonfire that would have made it unavailable in Huntington.

Lefty books matter, and so do books by Latin, Asian, African, Black and LQBTQ writers. Theirs is one of literature’s untold stories over the past half-century. Libraries have changed because readers have signed petitions, marched, demonstrated and demanded books that weren’t on the shelves. Too often libraries purge old books to make room for new books especially in the US where the new is king, queen, jack and ace. Store them, don’t get rid of them.

Granted, while libraries aren’t at the forefront of revolutionary movements and institutions today, they can play important roles in what I think of as a quiet revolution that’s often waged book-by-book and event-by-event. I’m told that first responders are the true heroes of today, and, while they certainly have helped all of us immensely in California during fires and floods, they’re not the only heroes. Behind the scenes, forward-looking librarians wage peaceful cultural warfare.

From the outside, San Francisco’s 27 branch libraries, from Anza to the Western Addition, look like fortresses that have changed very little over the years. After all, they’re made of durable building materials and sit in the same locations where they have sat for decades. But walk inside a branch, browse the bookshelves and look at the events and programs that are offered and it’s clear that big changes have taken place ever since the new improved main library opened 26 years ago in 1996. In another state, say Texas or Florida, right-wing politicians might want to burn books, and padlock the doors so no one had access to the “subversive” information inside. Bigots and reactionaries also exist in California, but in San Francisco they’re less visible and less outspoken than in other states, at least for the time being.

At their best, librarians spread and circulate ideas that are regarded as subversive. I’m reminded of  James Madison who noted 300 or so years ago that “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.” Sad to say, we live in a country where citizens don’t have free and open access to information, facts and the truth, which has become increasingly elusive because of corporate media, leaders Trump and Putin and politicians who want to keep the public in the dark.

Libraries don’t guarantee popular information and popular governments, but they help make those two things possible. It’s also up to readers and citizens to keep libraries honest, serve the needs of diverse communities, and move with the times.

In San Francisco, the eight-page April newsletter, “At the Library,” describes dozens of conversations, presentations, films and more that feature queer and trans writers, as well as women and people of color, including Natalie Diaz, the author of Postcolonial Love Poem, the 2021 Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry, and Michelle Cruz Gonzales, who has written what’s described as “a satirical novel about a near-future California that secedes from the US and forces intermarriage between whites and Mexicans for the purpose of creating a race of beautiful, intelligent, hard working people.”

Times have changed dramatically in the world of book publishing ever since Lawrence Ferlinghetti first opened City Lights in the early 1950s and tended to publish books by white men. Also, in that not too distant past, San Francisco libraries promoted novelists and poets who were very often white and male. They weren’t Confederate generals or out-and-out racists, but their names reflect a literary past that was patriarchal and that tended to emphasize English and East coast American writers.

The evidence is out in the open for all to see. At the Sunset branch on 18th Avenue, which is near my apartment, sixteen names are etched into the outer walls. Some, such as Poe, Emerson and Whitman, I recognize. Others, including Halleck and Stedman, mean nothing to me. Not even the librarians knew anything about them, though one librarian told me “they’re writers.” Duh!

At the Mission branch on Bartlett Street, 31 names are etched into the outer walls. Not a single one belongs to a person of color and there’s only one woman, identified as “Geo Eliot.” George Eliot is the pen name of Mary Ann Evans, the author of The Mill on the Floss, once required reading in public schools, and Middlemarch, a masterpiece about English provincial life. Fifteen of the authors are English, from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Wordsworth and Tennyson. Tolstoy is the only Russian, Robert Burns the only Scottish author, Homer the only Greek.  Surprisingly, there’s no Charles Dickens and no Herman Melville, either, though there’s Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville’s buddy.

Why these names were chosen no one seems to know, not even Susan Goldstein, the City Archivist, though she said, “they’re typical of the time.” The names on the walls reflect the authors who were popular back in the day and who had the sanction of academia. (The Sunset Branch opened during World War I.)

It’s a good thing for readers, authors, libraries and the culture of the city that there are far more books by, and events with, writers of color and women than there were when Ferlinghgetti arrived in North Beach and opened the first all-paperback bookstore in the US. These days the topics at the public library reflect current political, social and environmental concerns. April is “Climate Action Month.” Not surprisingly, Greta Thunberg’s I am Greta (2020) is available. What’s surprising is that it’s in Chinese. There are also two compelling exhibits: “Sustainability in Times of Scarcity” and “Wild Forest,” by Christopher E. Korman, one of the few men who is represented. Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman would want to attend.

The main branch has aimed to bring the world of letters up-to-date. The names of more than one hundred celebrated authors, including women and people of color, are listed inside the building on the “Constellation” above the main floor. Some are local, like the feminist, Susan Griffin, plus Armistead Maupin, famous for Tales of the City, and the feisty, muckraking author Jessica Mitford who upended the American funeral industry. Others are world renowned novelists and poets such as Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges. Dashiell Hammett, the author of the San Francisco classic, The Maltese Falcon, joins the crowd.

After reading and taking pictures of the outer walls of the Mission and the Sunset branches, I thought about the names I’d want the library to add: Emily Dickinson, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Gertrude Stein, Lu Hsun, the brilliant 20th century Chinese writer, and the socialist author, Jack London, because he was born in San Francisco in 1876 and wrote about the city in his best novel, Martin Eden. There are so many outstanding South American writers that it’s challenging to pick out just one or two. I’d like books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Elena Poniatowska, 90, the French-born Mexican author who wrote about the slaughter of students by Mexican soldiers that took place in 1968 in the Mexican capital.

The San Francisco library might reach out to the public more than it has so far and invite suggestions for writers to include. It might also offer talks, workshops and discussions about some of the writers from the past who were once famous and who are now largely forgotten. Anyone care to sign up for a talk on Poe or Whitman who seem to be as widely read and as beloved as ever?

I can’t help but wonder which writers who are popular now, will fall by the wayside and join Booth Tarkington, once all the rage and now mostly a ghost who haunts the pages of literary history. The library has some of Tarkington’s books, including The Magnificent Ambersons, which Orson Wells made into a masterful movie. One of the great things about San Francisco’s public libraries is that for the most part they haven’t canceled cultures, not recently. Rather they keep the literary past alive.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.