Nancy Drew had Deborah Barrow’s full attention.
As a girl growing up in San Diego’s Emerald Hills neighborhood, Barrow found a kinship with the intrepid sleuth who gave the Hardy Boys a run for their money on children’s bookshelves.
Years later, she found a way to serve as a kind of gumshoe herself. She became a librarian, helping patrons search for information during a new era that produced electronic card catalogs and the internet.
Now, Barrow runs the sprawling San Diego library system, including the branch in Valencia Park that was a kind of second home for her as a child. Its collection of more than 3.6 million volumes makes it the ninth-largest city library system in the country.
For our interview, I went to meet Barrow at the downtown central library just before it opened at 9:30 a.m. (Due to budget cuts, the central library opens before noon just three days a week and is closed on Saturdays. Library hours as a whole have steadily eroded over the last decade.) Dozens of people stood patiently waiting to get in.
I asked Barrow to ponder the library system’s future: Why do we need a fancy new library building? How do they treat the homeless? And will we ever need to pay for the privilege of a library card?
The new downtown library is scheduled to open next year. At the same time, books and other information continue to go online. Why do we need a grand new building for the next 40 years?
Our tradition is to provide access to everyone, to be the equalizer for the community, to provide for those who don’t have or those who do have but not to the level that they need. There are so many things that the library provides that people need, and they come here for that.
At the new library, we will provide digital access and plan to have as many as 400 computers available for people to use. While we certainly understand that things are digital, and we purchase digital and provide access to things through digital methods, everything is not online yet.
And the library is something beyond the books and materials. There’s a cultural and social value to the library. It is a place that people go to gather.
The downtown library plays host to quite a few homeless people each day it’s open. Do you put any limitations on them?
People can certainly come to the library and be there all day. We don’t discriminate about who can be at the library. We serve all of our library users equally.
If there’s a problem with someone, if they’re disorderly or causing a disruption, that’s when we take action. But when it comes to the homeless, this is an issue for our entire society. It’s not just the library. There are other gathering points where they’re obvious and take advantage of, or use, various services.
Do you think the homeless situation will be any different at the new library?
It will look different to people because we’ll have far more visitors and it will be a more active place. There will be a bit more blending, probably.
How do other libraries handle the homeless?
The San Francisco Public Library launched a program a while ago where they were able to get a social worker into the library who helps to discuss things and look for solutions. But that’s not the traditional library-type service, and it does mean that you need to find funding to do that. That’s the kind of solution we’d like to look for.
Fines for overdue books aren’t very high — just 30 cents a day. Could you raise fees to bring in more revenue?
We’re not a money-making venture. Traditionally, libraries have had fines in order to serve as a deterrent and a reminder that we need our materials back.
What you find in some places is that the fines become a punitive situation and you lose the library user for life. It is more to remind everybody to be responsible and to share.
Could you ever see a day when there will be a charge to use the library?
That is not the tradition of a free public library.
Now let’s talk about me getting my very own reserved parking spot at the new downtown library. That’ll totally happen, right?
You and other library users will be able to come to the library and park downstairs. If you can stay the one hour that a person typically stays in the library, you’ll be validated and not have to pay for parking.
I guess that will have to do. Do you see a bigger role for private organizations to support the library? You already have assistance in helping some branches stay open extra hours and, of course, philanthropy is helping to pay for the new downtown library.
We have big corporations who help us frequently and individuals who help to address the needs.
Recently, I heard a story about a woman who went to one of our libraries and saw the children sitting and waiting to use the computer. She wrote a check for thousands to provide more computers at that library because she has a connection to that library, that community and those children.
Could the move toward private funding go too far?
That’s the direction we’re going now, and I can’t say it’s going too far. Society is saying let’s find another way to fund not only library services but other services. We’re doing everything we can with grants, private funding and collaborations.
How have the library cutbacks affected you personally?
Emotionally, it’s very difficult. I’m very concerned about our community, and I feel strongly that the library is important to education, to uplifting our society and to providing equal access. But at the same time, I understand the financial reality.
Interview conducted and edited by Randy Dotinga.