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Richard Rider

New Downtown San Diego Library Is a $185 Million Obsolete Monument to a Bygone Era

The new San Diego central library is opening downtown with great fanfare.  It’s a monument to learning and knowledge.

Well, that’s SUPPOSED to be what it represents.  But in reality, this expensive new already-obsolete building is a monument to an era that is ending — a structure that in a few years will have little more utility value than a Pharaoh’s pyramid in Egypt.  The only difference is that the library will have high operating costs — the pyramids need no such annual funding.

Almost NO ONE goes to the library to “do research” any more — except perhaps to use library computers.  See my article below on how to better provide such computer access at a tiny fraction of the cost.

In a city of 1.3+ million people, maybe 5,000 people will sit down inside and use it in a month — and that figure may be high.  Oh, there will be a much higher headcount, but many of these daily patrons are “library club” folks — repeat visitors who LOVE to hang around the library, read magazines and sit in plush chairs. Many others will drop by to check out books, videos, music, etc. — something that does NOT require a $185 million dollar building.

Indeed, as a result of this move to our gleaming new, unneeded monument to Friends of the Library, we now have an almost empty downtown pyramid that no one thought about while building the new building.  Of course, I refer to the OLD library building.

It’s possible it will become the nation’s most ornate, ill-designed homeless center — an urban counterpart to the Wild Animal Park. It has the added advantage that, for the homeless, it’s only a few blocks to the comfortable new library — a welcome upgrade for our distinctive (pun intended), imaginative panhandlers and parallel universe dwellers.

Am I being cruel?  I suppose so.  But all this library construction (and higher annual operating costs) has NO real benefit to our homeless population — let alone almost everyone else in the city. IF we want to help the homeless (and keep inviting more of them to make San Diego their “home”), that’s a different matter — one that can be dealt with far more effectively with far less money.

Finally, I’m including below an idea I’ve broached a couple times in the past — a column on outsourcing library computer accessibility (for a tiny fraction of the current cost) that ran in the NORTH COUNTY TIMES and VOICE of SAN DIEGO.  It’ stirred up the library lovers in the comments, but no one could effectively rebut my points.

Think Outside the Large Library Box

BY:  | JULY 5, 2011 | COMMENTS (10)
One of the modern-day rationales for bigger, more expensive public libraries is free internet computers. Supposedly, a vast number of San Diegans lack internet access. Maybe that was true 10 years ago, but not today. It’s sad to see library lovers flailing around for such silly reasons to justify not only maintaining but expanding public libraries.
Today, computers are a cheap commodity. A netbook computer can be purchased new for under $300. Fully functioning used desktop systems can go for under $100 — about the price of two expensive video games for a PlayStation III.
Today, almost all students have computers or have ready access to them. In addition to home systems and portables, they have computers at school. Within three years, most schools will probably issue students cheap laptop computers with the textbooks uploaded — less expensive than printed books.
Internet connections are everywhere — home and business Wi-Fi, cable, phone lines, etc. Additionally, internet cafes offer internet computers at cheap per-hour rates.
But, suppose we still desire to offer more free access to the internet on computers (an idea I do not personally support), for our business model, we should look to (of all places) the U.S. Post Office. The post office contracts with local stores to serve as mini-post offices, making such service much more convenient to the public.
Similarly, the city could contract with cafes, coffee shops or fast food outlets to provide such free computer service, paying annually as much as $15,000 to $20,000 per location (including buying and maintaining perhaps 10 basic internet-connected computers). These small, struggling businesses would benefit from the steady core revenue, plus the ancillary revenue from the computer users making other purchases.
The free computers could be geographically positioned in areas where such service is most needed, not housed in a few library buildings that are inconvenient to get to and are too often closed to the public.
The results? Far cheaper and far better service. At $20K per coffee shop [an overly-generous figure, I might add], $1 million annually would provide 50 such locations. Furthermore, this business model would entail little in the way of operating costs or liabilities — unlike the library, where overpriced government employees are expected to help patrons navigate the internet (or play games, view porn or whatever).
The downside? No ribbon-cutting photo op for the politicians comparable with the grand opening of a two-hundred-million-dollar library.
We still need lending libraries — the core library function — but we don’t need bigger and better computer terminal libraries. That’s an idea relegated to the previous century. It’s time we start thinking outside the library box.
Richard Rider is chairman of San Diego Tax Fighters and lives in Scripps Ranch.