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Grace Carroll is the kind of girl you’d trust for a scoop on the San Diego scene. She’s pretty, blonde, smart. She tends bar in one of La Jolla’s hottest restaurants, where the clientele isn’t much older than the twentysomething chef, who may have been the first here to foist celery foam on culinary early-adopters.

“I can’t believe you haven’t been.” Carroll’s voice lowers to conspiracy level as she pours our drinks. “The space is totally amazing. Sometimes I go just to hang out.”

This insider tip we get with our sauvignon blanc is not about a club, microbrew pub, or boutique. It’s a library. The Mission Valley Branch of the San Diego Public Library.

Last year more than half of all Americans visited a library at least once, according to a new report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. But the real kicker is this: the age group most likely to use a library is none other than Carroll’s tech-savvy, wired-from-the-womb Generation Y (18 to 30 years old).

An informal survey of San Diego State University undergraduates in Katie Hughes’s writing and composition classes offers a variety of nonacademic ways Gen Y students use libraries: from sleeping to playing computer games, from checking out Oprah-recommended novels for “recreational reading” to researching databases for music. One student enthuses, “It seems easier to meet girls at the library than at frat parties!” And another, “When I go to the library to study, ‘cruising’ is always expected.”

Out at Chili’s for lunch, I spot a guy who looks like a skater, Howard Dunson, 25, reading a newspaper at the bar. I ask him about libraries. He answers that reading and browsing city libraries — Linda Vista and Mission Valley — are “hobbies” of his; librarygoing is his “leisure.” An older sister turned him on to libraries when they were kids. “Reading keeps you on track,” Dunson says. “I look for what catches my eye. Other languages. Math. A book on car engines. Last time I was there, I picked up a book on the human brain and learned a bunch on it that’s cool.”

Any doubt that Gen Y is the cohort careening Miss Daisy’s bookmobile down the information superhighway is dispelled when I check out new libraries across the county, specifically the one in Encinitas, which opened in February. Getting this library built was a community soap opera: on the city books for ten years, construction costs double original budget, fractious city council meetings, revenue juggling, bloggers who said it wasn’t green enough.

But finished, this library is worth a road trip.

Sunken reading lounge. Wi-Fi sun terrace. Glassed-in meeting rooms with views of the Pacific. Staggered computers designed for privacy; no ruined sightlines. Wii entertainment systems. Espresso cart. Used-book shop worthy of a Berkeley bibliophile.

Public library staffs are getting makeovers too. Younger librarians are more “high-tech information sleuths” than traditional bookworms, declares U.S. News and World Report, which named “librarian” as one of the top careers of 2008.

You can spot the hipsters behind the checkout desks. Chances are they’re working on or got their graduate degree online from San José State, which has the largest library and information science program in the world. The program relies almost exclusively on distance learning, attracting 2200 online students from 12 different countries.

“There’s a more relaxed feeling in libraries now,” says Cathy Straitiff, a 28-year veteran school librarian and the driving force behind San Dieguito Academy’s new media center/library, the most popular gathering place on campus. “Librarians are being taught to make a friendly place and not shh-shh-shh.”

Here in the City of San Diego, there’s a definite library scene. In the last six years, three cruiseworthy branch libraries opened — in Mission Valley, Serra Mesa, and UTC — while ground was broken for a fourth in Logan Heights, to be six times larger than the old library, currently one of the city’s smallest at 3967 square feet. The new two-story branch will feature a computer lab with 35 computers for classes or students, 31 public-access computers, “Centro Cultural” community galleria/exhibit area, a preschooler learning center, and the city’s largest Spanish-language film, book, and music collections.

The mayor’s office claims that last year more than six million individuals visited city libraries. Twenty-seven percent of these visitors (1.6 million) went high-speed via library computers. A thousand San Diegans learned to read or read in English courtesy of the library’s free literacy program, READ/San Diego. And last year, all 1.3 million of us official San Diegans, including Mayor Sanders, rapper Lil’ Wayne, and the San Diego Chargers, were invited to read the same book when the library inaugurated a citywide book club, One Book, One San Diego.

San Diego’s current library budget is $38,362,037. In the proposed budget for fiscal year 2009, which begins July 1, it drops to $35,315,605. That’s roughly 3 percent of the City’s general fund, the bulk of which (61 percent) is derived from property, sales, and hotel occupancy taxes. There is little state or federal assistance for public libraries.

Of the City pie, the Library Department scores less than half the funding that Park and Rec gets.

Which comes down to this: per capita, the City spends about $28.95 per San Diegan on libraries, the same level of munificent library spending found in Americus, Kansas, or Aztec, New Mexico. (In comparison, the City of Carlsbad spends almost $100 per citizen on libraries; San Francisco, $72.81.)

The 2008 budget stated that there were no library capital improvements (remodeling, new construction) scheduled in San Diego this past fiscal year because of “the city’s inability to enter the public bond market.” However, funding for the new Logan Heights Branch Library comes from “a $5.25 million state library grant, with additional support from the First 5 Commission of San Diego County, developer fees, and federal funding,” according to “Check Us Out,” an official publication of the San Diego Public Library and its foundation.

Overall, not bad for a nonessential services department in a city struggling to stay solvent in a state whose public libraries rank 44th nationwide.

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Comments

epearcy June 19, 2008 @ 11:30 a.m.

North Clairemont is my library, too. I did not discover it until one year after moving to the area. Now, after going weekly for teh last few months, my three year old is thrilled to get a new book. He takes his Spiderman backpack and fills up on Dr. Seuss and Sesame Street. Before the library, all he wanted was DVDs and cartoons, now he is actually "reading" and loving it.

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rshimizu12 June 19, 2008 @ 4:51 p.m.

San Diego has great libraries. They are have made a lot of progress in remodeling and or building new libraries. Some of the older libraries do not have enough outlets for laptop users. For some reason the libraries seem to have the most uncomfortable chairs.

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kfmfisher June 20, 2008 @ 9:53 a.m.

Of course the city spends more money on parks and rec. I don't know why this guy would bother to write about the library. Most people could care less about having libraries at all.

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clockerbob June 20, 2008 @ 1:40 p.m.

The San Diego public library system refused service to an estimated 50,000 patrons last year. These 50,000 are visitors or locals who wanted to use a 1hr computer station but were REFUSED and informed that all computers are occupied and that they had to wait an hour or longer. Most never return. It's a hardy crew that occupies a 1 hr computer station at a public library and I'm one of them.

  The downtown central library

has a ratio of one librarian on duty for every 1hr computer station.

A modern library has a ratio of one librarian for every 30 computers. E.G. Lied library at UNLV. Bio-med at UCSD. Love library at SDSU. Copley library at USD. Encinitas library.

There is an overwhelming need to cut the staff and use the money for 1hr computer stations that would increase the libraries usages by 50,000 patrons a year at no cost to the public.

Mr. Robert J. Kachur San Diego, Calif

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joyoftexts June 21, 2008 @ 3:26 p.m.

What irony! In the middle of a terrific cover story about a branch library, we learn that a city "public senior information officer" consults with the mayor's office and then refuses to speak with the author about the Library Department and also forbids the author from talking to any library employee.
However, the "information officer" IS allowed to tell us she's an author and consults with people trying to deal with "experience fragments." Apparently, job title hypocrisy is not considered a "fragment." Who knew? The Library Department as a hotbed of closely guarded secrets? I'll never look at a branch librarian again without wondering just what she might be planning.

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nellsonic June 25, 2008 @ 11:44 a.m.

What happened to libraries as places of quiet refuge? We need such places, especially in urban environments. Most libraries now might as well be branches of a chain bookstore. Between cell phone users and librarians speaking as if they were on the floor of a factory the opportunities for peaceful reading and browsing have largely died.

If the people who run our libraries won't allow the citizens to have appropriate oversight, maybe they can at least promote an environment of courtesy and respect, or answer as to why they no longer bother.

Anders Nelson

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beernick March 2, 2009 @ 3:16 p.m.

as a former employee of the SDPL - I found a few errors in the story but I am glad that someone has taken the time to speak for the librarys -- error 1 - libriarians don't shhh anymore -- in the 11 years i worked in the system every librarian I know struggled to let the library be a place where the kids could have fun, but not too much, and people who want to study could as well-- it is a difficult balance for staffs to maintain - esspecially when they are loosing staff and hours as they have been in the last few years

error 2- donna Frys saying if they could get a one page report on the librarys -- they can -- just ask the branch manager -- they do monthly reports each month to report the statis of the library - if the city council is having problems getting these maybe they need to go and meet the library staff in their district i don't think going to 1 or 2 libraries is too much toa ask-- maybe even check out a book or dvd -- in the 11 years i worked for the system I saw maybe 2 council members who were regulars at the librarys -- the rest if they ever showed up it was only fo events they thought would get them on the news

the SDPL is one of the finest places I have ever worked and it it filled with great people who care about the service they provide-- so thank them next time your in -- because they probably just spent 20 minutes arguingwith someone over a $.25 fine -- give them a break -- they are there to help you

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