One For The Books

From a recent email sent out by the city I was very pleased to learn that the Redwood City Public Library has received its fourth consecutive “Five Star Rating” in the Library Journal’s Index of Public Library Service. Indeed, it seem that Redwood City’s library system is now top-rated among all mid-sized and large library systems in the country! This rating is not just about the books, although the addition of some 20,000 books in 2014 certainly didn’t hurt. It also takes into account the number of visitors, the use of its meeting rooms and Teen Center, the use of its public computers, and the number of community programs and events that it conducted. Clearly, libraries are no longer just about the books, and our library system is keeping up with the times, adapting itself to more fully serve the community in which it is located.

I’m sure that nearly all of us are quite familiar with Redwood City’s main library, where Middlefield meets Jefferson. The brilliant repurposing of what was once Redwood City’s Fire Station No. 1 has resulted in a flagship library that presents a particularly beautiful facade:

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Inside not only will you find a rather substantial book collection, but publicly accessible computers, meeting rooms, and even a store where you can purchase donated books and thereby help support the library’s programs. And the downtown branch is open 7 days a week! While I do love our library, I must admit that I hadn’t given much thought to the fact that our library system is more than just the downtown branch: there are three others, as well. And for me, they were well overdue for a visit.

On a recent walk—the reason for which I’ll get to later in this post—I was in the vicinity of the Key Market at the corner of Upton St. and Roosevelt Ave. Looking at the map on my smartphone, I was startled to realize that I was only a block away from the Schaberg branch of the Redwood City Library system. The name was familiar, but I had never really thought about where that particular branch was. And because my wife and I frequent this particular Key Market, I’ve driven very close to this library many times without actually noticing that there is a “Library” sign at the corner of Upton and Euclid, pointing up Euclid. Positioned as this branch is, immediately adjacent to Roosevelt School, even if you drove by you’d be forgiven for mistaking the library for part of the school.

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My first visit to the Schaberg branch was on a Monday. I was dismayed to learn that this particular branch is closed on Mondays (and Fridays and Saturdays); I wasn’t able to go inside that day. Based upon my observation of the building itself, I guessed that this particular branch would be pretty small—a fact that I was able to confirm when I went back on Wednesday. As well, given its proximity to Roosevelt, I also confirmed another guess: that this branch would be tailored more for the younger set. Indeed, the Schaberg branch of the Redwood City Library appears to serve as an after-school hangout for a large number of Roosevelt School kids. It does so even when the library is closed: apparently the kids just wait for their rides on the library’s front steps.

Roughly a third of the Schaberg branch is dedicated to children’s books; another third seems to be books for adults. The remaining space is dedicated to shelves full of videos, the checkout counter, and the public computers. When I was growing up I spent a lot of time in a library very much like this (minus the videos and computers, of course); this branch gave me a nice sense of familiarity. While I don’t think I will be spending much time here—the downtown branch is just about the same distance from my house, and has far more to offer for someone of my years—the Schaberg branch seems ideal given its location.

Equally well suited is what I believe is the smallest of the four branches in the Redwood City system: the Fair Oaks Branch Library, at 2510 Middlefield. I’ve known about the existence of this particular branch for a long time, but have never stopped in here, either. If you are heading south on Middlefield, it is just a couple of blocks past the Costco (and on the same side of the street), and about one block before you get to the light at Douglas Avenue. This one is easy to miss since it is just one storefront in a building that has, as its primary tenant, the San Mateo County Human Services Agency:

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Like the Schaberg branch, the public portion of the Fair Oaks branch library consists of just one room. And it is a smaller room, at that. But it is one that is clearly designed to serve a particular audience. As with Schaberg, a large portion of the library is given over to children’s materials: not only books, but magazines and computers with brightly colored keyboards. There are also a reasonable number of publicly accessible computers, and a large selection of videos. This library, of the four, probably has the smallest collection of books for adults, but it may well have the largest set of Spanish-language materials of all of the branches: no surprise, given its location in what I would guess would be a predominantly Spanish-speaking section of town. Oh—and on the day I visited I was pleased to see adults working one-on-one with children, helping them learn to read.

The main branch is downtown. Schaberg is in the middle of a residential area on the west side. Fair Oaks is south of the city, in unincorporated Fair Oaks. And the fourth library is—where else?—towards the north-east corner, out in Redwood Shores (at the intersection of Marine Pkwy and Bridge Pkwy). Given my enthusiasm for the downtown branch, if you’ve ever been inside the Redwood Shores branch you might guess that I was going to love this one, too. And you’d be right!

To start with, here’s the exterior of the library building:

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Note that I couldn’t quite get it all into that one shot: I really need a wide-angle lens! But you can see that the varying rooflines and the curving facade makes for a very promising building. And it actually delivers on that promise! For instance, take a look at these images:

Redwood City Library, Redwood Shores branchRedwood City Library, Redwood Shores branch

No, I didn’t accidentally include pictures of the Monterey Bay Aquarium—this branch has its own Environmental Interpretive Center, funded in part by the State Costal Conservancy. And although it isn’t clear from the front of the building, the San Francisco Bay Trail runs just behind the library. This branch is the only one of the four to have a public deck; there is even a connector (visible in the above photo) between the trail and the library’s deck. And as you can also see, there are signboards that will help you identify some of the wildlife you may see in the water and the wetlands that abut the Redwood Shores branch. This particular branch is closed on Fridays, but it is open on both Saturday and Sunday. So you have no excuse not to visit, even if you work on weekdays. I should note that the chidren’s section is very impressive, as is the array of public computers. And there is even a room dedicated to quiet reading, although the noise level in the main part of the library was quite low.

As I hope you’ll agree, our award-winning library system is both impressive and well worth visiting. As is typical with many of my blog posts, however, our public library system wasn’t what I originally set out to write about. My original subject, and the motivation for the walk that resulted in this post, was a set of smaller libraries in our area. Much smaller. About four cubic feet, in fact…

You may have seen some of these on your drives around Redwood City (or around the country, for that matter: there are now in excess of 20,000 of them in over 70 countries!):

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They’re not bird houses! This “little library” happens to be on Rutherford, at Himmel (just a couple of blocks south of Woodside Rd.). And it is a real library, in that you borrow books from it. But unlike a typical public library, there is no library card, and no librarian to see when you want to check out a book. No, these little libraries work on the honor system: simply take what interests you, and return it when you are done. Or return something else: part of the fun here is when people swap out books and donate other books, causing the stock to continually change.

Here is one on Upland Rd. (at 775 Upland):

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A closer inspection reveals that these two, at least, are registered with Little Free Library, a non-profit that aims to promote literacy by making books freely available. As it turns out, these library boxes also promote community: as people stop by and exchange books they often stop and chat, either with other patrons or with the owner of the box. The Little Free Library organization encourages interested folks to build and host their own little libraries. If you are interested in hosting one but don’t have the time or the requsite skills, they’ll gladly sell you a kit or a fully built library box—just visit their website at http://littlefreelibrary.org. You are by no means required to work with that organization, however. If you simply want to build and install a little library of your own design, go for it!

I know of at least five of these within Redwood City, but undoubtedly there are more: I haven’t yet walked every single street! In addition to the two above, there is this rather basic one on Alameda de las Pulgas, at McGarvey:

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As you can see (click the photo to enlarge, if necessary), these little libraries can have quite a range of books in them. As with Redwood City’s public libraries, I suspect that these libraries start to take on some of the character of the surrounding community (although the tastes of the little library owner undoubtedly factor in as well). Some of these boxes tend more towards children’s books. This particular one leans a bit more towards the adult reader. As does this one:

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I’ve mentioned this one before: it is located on the plaza at our County Center (where you go if you have jury duty, or where you go to pay your property taxes in person). This book box is larger than some, and is the only one I’ve found so far that is not registered with Little Free Library. When I first saw it, back in April of last year, the sign that now sits behind it wasn’t there. These days, though, it has a “headboard”:

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The quote on the upper board reads:

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”
Marcus Tullius Cicero

The lower provides instructions:

Enjoy a book while you work or wait. Leave a book you have enjoyed for someone else to take!

And then there is the green board in the middle, inscribed with the words “The Big Lift.” Not knowing what that was all about, I naturally had to satisfy my curiosity. Fortunately, a quick Internet search yielded the results: The Big Lift is a program by the Peninsula Partnership Leadership Council aimed at making significant increases in third-grade reading proficiency within San Mateo County. They hope to increase it from 58% to 80% by the year 2020. This box won’t have any direct effect on that, of course; very few third graders spend their free time on the plaza outside the San Mateo County buildings in downtown Redwood City. However, this Little Library calls attention to the effort, and helps remind people of the value of reading and of setting a good example for our children by allowing them to see us reading.

The downtown Little Library may be bigger than the previous three, but it doesn’t hold a candle to this big guy:

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As you can see, this “independent librarian” has gone beyond books, and is encouraging the neighborhood to exchange seeds as well. What an excellent idea! Unfortunately, when I checked the selection was a tad sparse:

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The day I visited there were just Morning Glories (in the envelope) and Blue Columbine (in the small jar behind the larger white label). I’m not sure what was in the Satay Peanut Sauce jar… As for books, this cabinet has three shelves’ worth: the lowest is all kid’s books, while the upper two have books for us adults. There was some good stuff in there! I particularly liked how the box’s creator took the time to affix an explanation of what this box is and how it works to the inside glass of the bookcase. If you’d like to visit, you’ll find it at 122 Clinton St., between Hopkins Ave. and Broadway.

In this day and age, with our Kindles and our abundance of electronic entertainment on tap through the Internet,  I am thrilled to see that libraries—and physical books!—seem to be doing as well as ever. While our libraries are adapting to more fully serve their customer base, and are no longer exclusively about books and reading, it is exciting to see that even in the heart of the Silicon Valley people continue to find creative new ways to encourage both reading and a love for books. The little libraries, in particular, exemplify the kind of sharing economy that I can really get behind.

I’ve identified the five “little libraries” that I know about in Redwood City (and I’m aware of two more in San Carlos)—but there must be others. If you know of any, please share with the rest of us in the comments below.

7 thoughts on “One For The Books

  1. Pingback: Going Native | Walking Redwood City

  2. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an very long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up.
    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyhow, just wanted to
    say superb blog!

  3. Greg, there is another “little library” at Garrett Park on Glenwood Avenue. I believe the “little libraries” project was started as a student project by a teenager on our street. Rick knows more about this.

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