Health & Human Services

Double Booking

A city and a university sharing a library? It's not easy, but San Jose is doing it.
by | August 2005
 

Ribbon-cutting ceremonies are becoming a regular event in San Jose, as much of the civic infrastructure is being rebuilt to reflect its status as the nation's 10th-largest city and the capital of Silicon Valley. This fall, a grand new city hall will be unveiled to the public. But there is another public building, just two blocks away, that was the first to symbolize San Jose's emergence as a thriving metropolis, as well as the success of an improbable public partnership.

In August 2003, at the opening of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library, a gauntlet of library employees stretched from the main entrance, on a downtown corner across the street from upscale condominiums, to the OTHER main entrance, facing the lush quadrangle of San Jose State University. A physical symbol of the link between town and gown, they welcomed citizens, faculty and students to the $177 million facility--the first in the nation to be jointly funded, built and managed by a public library system and major university.

In order to work together, city and university officials had to overcome decades of mutual disinterest and a host of political, financial and logistical obstacles. Many challenges still remain if the shared operation is to run smoothly. But both entities have a gleaming new library--far better than either could have built on its own. Furthermore, while "the initial aim was to solve a library problem for both institutions," says San Jose City Manager Del Borgsdorf, "it's grown into something much bigger. This partnership has completely changed the chemistry between the city and the university."

Other jurisdictions have expressed interest in San Jose's experiment. But officials there are quick to note the project required a combination of key ingredients, from identifying a common need and discerning a natural partnership to capitalizing on proximity, timing and funding. Most important, it took top-level political leadership. "If the two library directors had been trying to sell this idea up and down," says City Librarian Jane Light, "we'd still be working on it." Indeed, at the dedication ceremony, vendors out on the plaza were selling T-shirts that read "The Miracle on Fourth Street."

RARE IN AMERICA

Only a handful of joint public/academic libraries exist in United States; there are more of them in Europe, Australia and Canada. A half-century ago, combined municipal and elementary/high school libraries were common in rural America, where neither town nor school district could scrape up enough resources to create a library of its own. Although the current fiscal climate has sparked a resurgence of interest in sharing the costs of library facilities and services at all levels, actual full-fledged partnerships, especially those involving a four-year university, are rare.

The best chance to create one exists where there is a university in an urban or fast-growing area, focused more on teaching than research, and interested in civic engagement. San Jose's King Library is the central library for a city of nearly 1 million and serves a university with an enrollment of 29,000--more than half of whom come from San Jose or surrounding Santa Clara County and stay in the area after they graduate. The hallmark of Robert L. Caret's tenure as the school's president, from 1994 to 2003, was promoting the social responsibility of a "metropolitan" university.

A similar philosophy prompted a partnership in St. Paul, Minnesota, between Metropolitan State University and the city's public library system. Last fall, they inaugurated a $21 million facility that serves MSU's 10,000 students as well as families in the surrounding community. The 33-year-old university, which caters to inner-city adults, did not have a campus library, and Dayton's Bluff was the largest neighborhood in the city without a public library branch. The two entities divided the capital costs and share meeting space, although their materials and organizations remain separate.

In 2002, Nova Southeastern University and Broward County, Florida, opened the first dual-purpose library run by a private university and public library system. Nova Southeastern, which has 19,000 students, retains ownership of the five-story, 325,000-square-foot building and oversees the employment of the staff. Broward County paid half of the $45 million in construction costs and contributes 40 percent of the operating costs.

Although smaller in size and scope, the most common joint public/academic partnerships are between cities and community colleges. Broward County and Broward Community College pioneered the concept in 1981. Since then, a number of similar collaborations have come to fruition: in Aurora, Fort Collins and Westminster, Colorado; Ivy Tech State College/Tippecanoe County Public Library in Lafayette, Indiana; and Seminole Community Library and St. Petersburg College in Florida.

SHARING THE WORK

Like so many American cities, downtown San Jose began a long downward spiral in the late 1960s. By the mid-1980s, the university had constructed so many buildings along Fourth and Fernando Streets with their backs to the city that the campus became known as "the great wall"--an academic fortress surrounded by every form of urban squalor: panhandling, poverty, prostitution, violent crime and hundreds of mentally ill persons who had been released from institutions.

When the area started to rebound in the 1990s, with a mix of retail, upscale condominiums and new civic-minded residents, Caret was just taking over as San Jose State's president. He began meeting informally with then-Mayor Susan Hammer to discuss something they could do together. They had a mutual problem: library buildings for both the city and university that were too small and technologically inadequate. In early 1997, Hammer announced the plan to jointly build and operate a "state-of-the-art library with materials worthy of Silicon Valley."

The plan sparked an immediate outcry from some faculty members, who worried about the libraries' different missions and clientele, the loss of institutional identity, and the availability of materials needed by the university students for their coursework. They formed a group called SOUL, Save Our University Library, which gathered some 3,000 student and faculty signatures on an anti-merger petition. "No university that takes itself seriously...would merge its academic library with a public library and throw its collection open to the public," declared E. Bruce Reynolds, a history professor and founder of SOUL.

Many other residents expressed skepticism and anxiety about the project at public hearings. But city and university officials were convinced the risks were worth taking. After studying the operating agreements of other joint libraries, they produced and signed a detailed 48-page document before construction began in 1998. It addresses circulation and access issues (after contentious debate, the Academic Senate finally agreed to equal borrowing rights for all users), as well as the organizational structure, governance and maintenance of the library. There's even a section on termination and withdrawal rights.

The university retained title to the land, since the King Library was built on the site of one of SJSU's two outmoded libraries. The city and university own the building and furnishings as tenants in common. The city uses--and pays for--one-third of the 475,000 square feet of library space. The agreement also delineated who would perform such tasks as changing light bulbs and dusting the fire extinguishers. At times, the spirit of cooperation went overboard. Borgsdorf, the city manager, recalls "attending a meeting where someone asked, 'Who's responsible for window washing?' The university president and I both raised our hands."

Once the document was finalized, the next step was to nail down the capital funding. While the initial price tag of $40 million was a significant underestimate, San Jose's Redevelopment Agency was flush with property-tax revenue from the high-tech boom that was occurring on the perimeter of the city. The agency agreed to contribute $70 million and be the lead project manager, although as Light notes, "the Redevelopment Agency and the city didn't have a great track record of working together--let alone the agency, the city and the university."

At that point, the whole project hinged on statewide voter approval of a $9.2 billion school-construction bond measure on the November 1998 ballot. It passed handily, and the university's ability to leverage construction money from multiple sources (not only the city but also $16.5 million from private donors) pushed the library to the top of the state's capital projects list. "The arguments were fun to make and people listened," says SJSU President Don Kassing, "because what we were doing--creating a new synergism between two public entities--was so unique."

The California Legislative Analyst's Office, however, expressed concerns about the cost and "operational and ownership questions" and recommended that the legislature "consider the risks" before appropriating the funds. But legislators went ahead anyway: They handed over $86 million for the project.

PERSONNEL DILEMMAS

Meanwhile, the two library directors, plus private consultants and city, university and community representatives were meeting to figure out how a shared library would actually work. "It's one thing to negotiate and build a gorgeous building," says Hammer, "but if you haven't done the planning to make it operable, it's all for naught. I'm not Pollyanna-ish: It could have been a real disaster."

The most important decision--and the one that makes the San Jose partnership unique--was to fully integrate the two operations, and then get buy-in from all the stakeholders. Concerned about the connotation associated with the term "joint" library on a university campus and "merger" evoking the notion of a hostile takeover, Light came up with the idea of using "marriage" to define the relationship. "It just fit," says Patricia Senn Breivik, who recently retired as dean of the university library, "because in a good marriage you have two strong people who come together and can accomplish more than they could separately."

One thorny issue involved enabling different technology systems to communicate with one another, while at the same time providing network security and restricting public access to proprietary databases. The city and university also had to deal with two sets of procurement rules in the purchase of an integrated library system.

The trickiest area, though, was personnel. The library needed to honor four union contracts--for both managerial and clerical employees in both municipal and state government. Ultimately, it was decided that Light, representing the city, and Breivik, representing the university, would be co-managers of the building, with four integrated or "co-managed units": reference and collection development, cataloging, IT and access services. "There was a whole lot of 'Who's going to write my evaluation? It has to be somebody from my home institution,'" Light recalls. "I think it's a barrier, but we may or may not ever grow out of it."

The result is that city and university staff work side by side performing similar jobs but are on different pay scales and receive different benefits and holidays. City employees enjoy free parking in the garage across from the library; university employees don't have that perk--but they do get tuition waivers. "People who really see the package is better on one side or the other will have the opportunity to make that transition," says Breivik.

ONE STEP BEYOND

When the building opened two years ago, it became the largest library west of the Mississippi ever built from scratch. It contains 1.3 million volumes (with room for up to 2 million); 3,600 seats; 480 computer terminals; 3,000 data ports; 42 group study rooms. Once it was decided that the collections and services from both institutions would be available to everyone, the architects used design elements to help mitigate concerns about the commingling of babbling babies and serious scholars. The first four floors, reached by centrally located escalators, house general fiction and non-fiction collections. Floors five through eight, which contain the specialized academic research collections, are accessible only by elevators on one side of the building.

The King Library has proved to be popular with both students and local residents. The initial number of customers was much higher than had been anticipated--roughly 12,000 per day. Whereas the millionth visitor had been projected to walk through the doors in April 2004, this actually happened in December 2003. But that resulted in higher operating costs just as the city and state were feeling a budget squeeze. "The increased use also means the wear factor will be greater," says City Manager Borgsdorf.

"We've had some cuts in service and at the same time 20 to 30 percent more users than we anticipated," Light notes. "We thought the student use was saturated in the old library. It's clear students are coming into the library more. If they have an hour between classes, they come to the library instead of the student union or wherever they went before." The larger space and heavier traffic also requires more oversight by staff and security officers than anticipated. "We initially didn't have any employees on the top three floors," adds Breivik. "But a student fee was put into place to hire staff to walk top floors. We're still fine-tuning."

Such issues remain a concern to some of the original skeptics. The additional operating expenses, for example, are "sucking up money that should be going into the collection," contends history professor Jonathan Roth. "Is the joint library a success or a failure? It depends on whether you view a library as a collection of books, journals and archives or the walls that surround it. I think we traded our collection for a beautiful building."

"You can measure success several different ways," Light acknowledges. "People do love the building and drag their out-of-town guests here. But a clearer measure is that the city and university are talking about what else they could be doing together." Indeed, a joint city- university panel called "Beyond MLK" was formed in 2004, and discussions are currently underway about sharing recreational facilities, classroom space and a Wi-Fi network. Says SJSU's Kassing, "A new set of ideas has emerged--not as dramatic as the library--but with some real potential that we are exploring with confidence and energy."

Finally, Breivik notes the potential impact on children and minorities and low-income adults who come to the library and are introduced to a college environment. "When you come in from the city side and look through the atrium," she says, "you see the campus. What that's saying to families where no one's gone to college is: You can get a college education that's only one step beyond your public library. To me, that is architecturally the most important message this building gives out."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Health & Human Services