San Francisco Public Library: Main Library – 2/7/2013

Wow y’all, where to begin?  I recently visited the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL)’s main library and it totally exceeded my expectations.  In fact, I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.

2013-02-07 16.39.13Unlike some other amazing libraries, San Francisco’s main library has a pretty drab exterior (at least I think so – their website extolls the beaux arts style marble…).  Thankfully, what’s waiting inside is anything but ordinary.  The library, which was finished in 1996, is built around a central atrium that is five stories tall and topped with a huge skylight.  I was initially concerned that all this open space might make the library really noisy, but it doesn’t.  Instead, the open center and unusual walkways manage to create a sense of shared experience across the building’s different floors.

This integration is even more noteworthy given the diverse group of library users I observed while walking around.  People speaking a variety of languages, sporting an array of styles, and engaging in a range of activities (carrying a whole box of Rice Krispies?  painting your nails?  yes, I saw you at SFPL on Thursday) were all coexisting in the library in a way that should truly make San Francisco proud.

In addition to the built environment’s lovely features, the library is home to numerous awesome collections.  These include (among others): the Filipino American Center, the Gay and Lesbian Center, and the Chinese Center.  I hate to admit it, but I missed all of these.  In my defense, I was distracted.  Distracted by the many walls that are decorated with compelling displays on subjects ranging from ranging from botanical drawings to Russian cubism in children’s books to the history of Wimmen’s Comix.  What can I say – I’m a sucker for a good display.

The two areas that I did manage to check out were the library’s Art, Music, and Recreation Center where I browsed through their collection vintage posters and LP’s and the San Francisco History Center.  The History Center houses (among many other things) a collection of totally awesome-looking vintage city maps and giant wooden globe.  Rather than representing the whole planet, though, the globe shows only San Francisco, but in a sphere – it’s pretty bizarre.  I also spent longer than is probably normal inspecting several of the walls throughout the library that have been papered with old catalog cards (sadly no good photos of this, but I promise it’s as awesome as it sounds) which were utterly absorbing.

While description above doesn’t even scratch the surface of what the SFPL’s main library has to offer, I hope it’s encouraged you to check it out for yourself.  If only because I missed their zine collection and would love a travel buddy!

For more information about visiting the main branch of San Francisco Public Libraries, visit their webpage at


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