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Feature: At 100, Menlo Park Library pivots to face 21st century

 

"Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future." ~ Ray Bradbury

This year marks the 100th year of the Menlo Park Library. In its first century, the library has grown from a few books in a school building to two buildings, a $2.7 million annual budget and up to 15 full-time employees, circulating an estimated 423,000 books over the past 12 months.

Over the years, the library has continued to evolve as the community and technology have changed.

Past

Prior to the start of any library, Menlo Park was a loosely affiliated area that included parts of what are now Atherton and East Palo Alto. There were several literary societies active then, which shared private book collections and fostered cultural events, according to a 1970 master's thesis in librarianship by San Jose State student Lucile Schmoll Benedetti.

At least three societies – based on literary activities and socializing, temperance and athletics, respectively – were active in the late 1880s through 1890s. Each had memberships in which people paid dues to gain access to a reading room. While the social group sponsored a reading room in addition to dancing, dining and concerts, the temperance association's reading room was pushed as a "wholesome" alternative for young men to get them out of saloons.

The Menlo Park Library began in March 1916 as an outpost of the San Mateo County free library system. Over the years, the library had many homes. Its first was at Central School, located on Oak Grove Avenue, between El Camino Real and University Drive, then a room at the Kuck Hotel at Derry Lane and Oak Grove Avenue, and later in the City Hall, which moved from Doyle Street to what is now the BBC building at El Camino Real and Santa Cruz Avenue. In 1948 it moved to its own building at 631 Menlo Ave., according to the Menlo Park Historical Association.

Between 1940 and 1954, Menlo Park underwent a population explosion, growing from 3,258 to 23,200 residents, according to Ms. Benedetti. Part of the growth was due to the 1949 annexation of Belle Haven and Suburban Park, where 3,000 people resided.

Some residents complained that the county wasn't providing adequate library service to support the larger population. In particular, Ms. Benedetti noted, a local author by the name of Edwin Gross spoke loudly and frequently about the need for a municipal library.

Between 1954 and 1964, Menlo Park slowly weaned itself from the San Mateo County library system, growing its collection and finding funds to hire staff. Because the library served many people in unincorporated county areas and nearby towns that did not yet have their own libraries, the county continued to provide some funding.

The Friends of the Menlo Park Library, a nonprofit that raises funds and hosts library activities, was launched in 1952, and in 1960 hosted its first book sale, the proceeds of which were used to purchase a photocopier. As a result, the library became the first in Northern California to offer photocopy services, according to the city website.

Today, the organization sells books at the front nook of the library, hosts several weekend book sale events each year and sells many titles online on Amazon.

The library got its permanent home in the Menlo Park Civic Center in 1957. In 1968, the library was expanded by 12,000 square feet to accommodate the great hall and basement areas.

In 1991, another 7,000 square feet were added and the entire library was remodeled. In 1999, the Belle Haven branch of the library was built with support from the Ravenswood City School District.

The Menlo Park Library Foundation, formed in 2004, raises funds primarily for capital improvements to the library, according to Monica Corman, the foundation's president. Its first project was to renovate the children's wing of the library, which was completed in 2010.

Present

Today, the library has its bases covered as a repository for material, both print and digital. Along with the requisite stacks of hard-copy tomes, shelves of DVDs and CDs and plush chairs around every corner, the library gives users free Wi-Fi, online research databases, downloadable e-books, audiobooks and magazines, and even some language learning software.

A lesser-known secret, said Library Director Susan Holmer, is that a library card offers access to the "Discover & Go" program, which provides free or discounted tickets to at least 36 Northern California museums, galleries and sites of interest.

The library also hosts events and activities for the community. Some of the most well-attended events in recent months, she said, have been a concert by Vellamo, a Finnish folk duo, arts and crafts activities for adults, and science nights for children.

Over the past several months, the Menlo Park Library has been going through a strategic planning process. A consultant conducted a community survey and is researching how the library could best meet community needs in the next three to five years, said Ms. Holmer.

When the results of the planning process are released in coming weeks, a "space needs" study will be launched, funded jointly by the city and the Menlo Park Library Foundation. Some kinds of spaces that could be considered are a sound-insulated room for teens, a cafe, a "Maker" space for creating things, or a room dedicated to Project Read tutoring.

Project Read, which began in 1985, offers one-on-one literacy tutoring at the main library for adults working on their reading skills. ESL (English as a Second Language) classes are held at the Belle Haven branch for people working on oral English skills, according to Roberta Roth, Menlo Park Literacy Program manager. The program now has 100 pairs of tutors and reading students who participate in Project Read and 35 people enrolled in ESL classes, she said.

Future

"Obviously in the 21st century, digital literacy skills are as critical as reading and writing skills," says Ms. Roth, explaining that Project Read is increasingly looking to help people gain digital literacy skills to do things like bank online or access online learning resources.

The shift from print to digital brings up questions about the changing function of libraries, but Ms. Holmer said that through the strategic planning process, she's learned that the community still wants physical books and audiovisuals to be available in the library, at the very least.

Ms. Holmer says she hopes the library will continue to evolve as a gathering place for the community. She's hoping the library becomes better-known as a place that enables people from all areas of the community to advance their education and build community.

The Menlo Park Library Foundation is also getting poised for another big project, Ms. Corman said. After the foundation funds the space needs study, she said, its members will seek to raise additional funds to meet the needs that the study identifies.

"(Many) towns around here have built new libraries," she says. "Everybody's doing it," she said.

Perhaps the most telling indicator of where the Menlo Park Library is headed, says Ms. Holmer, is a comment she overheard a father tell his daughter at the most recent children's science night.

He said, "You know, the library isn't just about books anymore."

Book sale, information

The Friends of the Library's next weekend book sale is scheduled on Saturday, June 25, and Sunday, June 26, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Go to volunteermatch.org and search Project Read or call (650) 330-2525 for more information if you are interested in becoming a tutor.

Email info@foundationmpl.org or call (650) 321-1084 to contact the Menlo Park Library Foundation.

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