Two Libraries: A Critical Analysis of Public Service

Anissa Malady
Steve Tash
LIBR 200
March 07, 2009


In this critical analysis I have chosen to examine two very different extremes of public libraries. The first is the San Francisco Public Library and the second is the Holt Labor Library both located in San Francisco. Both of these libraries mission is to serve the community in which they reside. One library is massive in size and scope and the other is specialized and extremely small. Both very different, yet have startling similarities.

Two Libraries

I chose to examine two very different types of libraries, both public, but one is specialized, the San Francisco Public Library Main Branch and the Holt Labor Library, both located in San Francisco. The Holt Labor Library is dedicated to “Labor Studies and Radical History” and the San Francisco Public Library is dedicated to serving the public on a whole. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit the Holt Labor Library and interview librarian Shannon Sheppard, as Holt Labor Library will be—unfortunately–closing its doors after seventeen years of important “radical” service to the San Francisco community.

The mission of the San Francisco Public Library (hereafter known as SFPL) “is dedication to free and equal access to information, knowledge, independent learning and the joys of reading for our diverse community.” The patronage at SFPL is diverse, consisting of surrounding community, researchers, students, and scholars. The Holt Labor Library (Holt) has a similar mission in that it strives to serve the public. Their official mission statement is “to provide a working library for labor and progressive studies accessible to the general public.”

The collection at the Holt consists of services geared toward labor and community activists, students, researchers and anyone (general public) interested in the subject matter. The main difference between the collections of these two libraries is that none of the material at the Holt circulates; it must be used on site, where as at SFPL the majority of the collection is circulating.

SFPL’s collection is one of the nation’s largest and more specialized collections. Home to the Marjorie G. and Carl W. Stern Book Arts and Special Collections Center, which contains artifacts related to printing, calligraphy and the book arts. Also specific to SFPL is the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center, these collected works document the history of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender community, specifically in San Francisco, but not limited to. Also housed at SFPL is the African American Center. This special collection is for library use only and details African history and culture throughout the Black Diaspora. These, in my opinion, are a few of the crowning features of the SFPL’s collection. Associated with all these collections are visual exhibits that rotate often in accordance with historical time periods, or current event. Within the library there are two main exhibition galleries the Skylight Gallery and the Jeweitt Gallery. The Skylight Gallery is located on the 6th floor and their exhibitions tend to be related to book arts, San Francisco History, or history in general. The Jeweitt Gallery, located on the lower level operates as a typical art gallery would, with changing exhibitions every few months. Most exhibits are San Francisco or California related. With both exhibition spaces, there are often correlating programs offered, such as films, lectures, and classes. Along with the two main galleries every floor also holds some type of exhibition space.

Other highlights include extensive children’s and young reader’s center, teen center, and a large audiovisual center. The Louis R. Lurie Foundation Audiovisual Center is extensive in scope, offering thousands of titles in all multi-media formats. Also available here are audio listening and viewing stations available to card holding patrons. Offered in connection with the audiovisual center are monthly film screening, held in the Koret Auditorium, a fully equipped screening and sound theater. These programs are always free, no library card is needed, and they offer an email list newsletter to inform patrons of upcoming programming.

The non-circulating collection at the Holt consists of about 4500 books on labor and socialist history and Marxist theory; over 3000 electronically searchable pamphlets, flyers and brochures; about 350 videos and DVDs; 300 audio format of speeches and classes by socialist and labor leader; posters, political and trade-union buttons, and other ephemera; and a personal archive from the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, Anti-Vietnam War organizations, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, Committee to Aid the Monroe Defendants, and others.

Both libraries, of course, have a searchable online catalog. I have been using the SFPL OPAC for many years now, so am far more knowledgeable of its capabilities. I find it, for the most part, user friendly to a basic computer user and that it can be adapted and expanded by a more advanced user. I have noticed glitches, and pitfall, but the public website if full of information pertaining to the library and its holdings. The Holt’s online catalog is completely managed by Shannon Sheppard, M.L.I.S., in fact when she started her position the collection was haphazardly recorded by a non-professional volunteer, so she spent a great deal of her career at the Holt creating a website, cataloging and just making the collection accessible to online users. They purchased online cataloging software from a small company that deals mostly with smaller libraries, Library World, and set about the arduous process of cataloging the growing collection. Some of the work was sent out to be done by specialist, some done by Shannon, and a majority is still being done by volunteers and interns. The Holt collection does participate in some Inter Library Loan, but none of the items circulate locally. The website is fantastic for the size of the collection and it will be operating and maintained even though the day to day public doors will be closing. The catalog offers several resources valuable without the actual physical presence of the library itself.

SFPL provides any resident of California an eCard or a virtual library card. With this any holder can access all of the electronic resources available through SFPL. Resources include the Articles and News databases (many with full-text), streaming music and audio access, and downloadable eBooks and eAudiobooks. Many diverse online resources are available to students, such as live homework help and SAT/GED practice test. There is a family history online research tools, an extensive business data base designed for job seekers, small business owner, and entrepreneurs; and access to an array of SFPL created research tools. I found the last, the SFPL created tools, to be the most intriguing. Most of the information within this searchable database are for arts (visual and performing), cultural, business, and community services within San Francisco, but also they relate to the bay area and even wider to California as a whole. The one SFPL created electronic resource I found to be extremely helpful was the Community Resources Organizations database. This allows the card holder to search by subject, organization or program; and to browse by categories, neighborhood or organization. This database is extremely useful for city or community aid organizations.

The Holt has many exceptional electronic resources available to the public. One outstanding feature is the Holt Labor Library Audio Collection, offering in mp3 format, hosted by the Marxists Internet Archive, lectures by many related speakers, authors and activist related to labor study, strikes, radical history and Marxist theory. The other main feature of electronic resources is the considerable “Internet Links” page. This resource links to hundreds of sites related to “current news, electronic archives, labor and employment law, labor and unions, labor libraries and archives, occupational health, periodicals, and visual art and exhibits.” (Sheppard, 2009)

The Holt Library does not offer any true “outreach” programs. There are a few outreach programs offered through the SFPL’s main branch that I would like to discuss. The first is its extensive Book Mobile service. In addition to serving the 28 local branches through the major restoration/improvement projects, the book mobile serves the disabled community as well.

There are three main bookmobile services, Library on Wheels, the Children’s Bookmobile, and the Treasure Island Bookmobile. In my mind “outreach” services span a variety of aspects. At the SFPL they offer two very interesting, what I consider, outreach programs. I consider these to be outreach programs, because they extend to reach out the community to encourage advancement in education and a lifetime of reading. The first program is called One City One Book, in which the library propagates the reading of one book per year, read at the same time by as many patrons possible. The goal of this service is to promote a lifetime of reading and literacy through the love books and the connection of the community, along a similar line, and actually generated from the program is On the Same Page; it operates as a city wide monthly book club. One book will be chosen by the library with the suggestions of patrons in mind, and disseminated throughout the library system, where patrons are encouraged to join the mass reading of the same book city wide. From this smaller book clubs are formed and a community dialogue is created inside and outside of the library.

Special services range at the main branch of SFPL, and are available and appeal to a wide range of diverse patronage. The larger services provided by SFPL are numerous in scope. Friends for Life, provides library services to permanent or long term disabled patrons. Deaf Services Center, which supplies comprehensive services to the deaf community, as well as to their friends and family. Library for the Blind and Print Disabled, is designated to provide service to clientele who are unable to read printed material due to vision or cognitive disability. Project Read, is an adult literacy program, providing free one on one tutoring to English speaking adults, with the aim of improving skill in reading and writing. The Brooks Walker Patent and Trademark Center, is one of only five California libraries allocated as a U.S. Patent and Trademark Depository, providing a searchable electronic resource for researching patents and trademarks.

Two other noteworthy services include the San Francisco History Center, which manages a collection of San Francisco related artifacts; also it is the official archive for the City and County of San Francisco. The History Center also manages The San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection, which much of is available for online viewing as well as on site viewing. SFPL provides services that are relevant and informative to the San Francisco public, as well as California residents who wish to apply for the eCard.

My observations at were very different experiences between the two libraries. At SFPL I went to the third floor to observe references desks and librarians at work. Most were helpful, explanatory in the answers they provided to patron. Most offered to show the patron how their searches were being conducted, in a way that was educational and not patronizing. I think people can be intimidated be the library experience and perhaps afraid to even ask for their information needs. The librarians I observed helped to quell this fear. At he Holt, the experience was basic, there are only two rooms and one extremely helpful librarian, and she is the staff.

Not surprising the budgets are astoundingly different between these two libraries. Both are suffering from the recession, and subsequently the Holt must shut its doors because of it. The SFPL operates on a budget of about $4 million dollars, while the Holt operates on a budget of about $110, 000 dollars, most of which goes to pay the one librarian and purchase subscription to periodicals. Governance at SFPL is at the heart run by the city and its citizens, which I believe to be a core principle to a public library, but it is also a city agency that must operate within a system of bureaucracy. I imagine governance comes slowly, with difficulty, planning, and must be done by established rules and regulations. The Holt is funded by one man Rod Holt, and governed by a small board of directors. Concepts and needs are submitted and then decided on by this small board.

I feel fortunate that I had the occasion to visit the Holt Labor Library, due to its pending closure in late April. It has served San Francisco for many years, reflecting the cities strong political background, by providing a unique public service to the community and beyond. I also realize how fortunate I am to live in a city that appreciates and protects (financially) their public library. San Francisco Public Library serves and strives to teach a community about the joys of a lifetime of reading and attempts to maintain its root within the community it serves.


(Last Modified: March 2, 2009 ). San franscico public library. Retrieved March 7, 2009, from San Francisco Public Library Web site:

Schaller, Joanna (January 21, 2009). sfgov. Retrieved March 3, 2009, from San Francisco Library Citizens Advisory Committee Web site:

Sheppard, Sahnnon rev. 01/22/09 . Retrieved March 3, 2009, from Holt Labor Library Web site:


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