A few weeks ago, I had occassion to get a Sunnyvale Library card, in order to check out materials that weren’t available through the interlibrary system. As a regular of San Jose’s library system, I found the Sunnyvale library’s comparative poshness incredible.
Before I go on, I do want to point out that the San Jose Public Library is pretty impressive on its own. The recently-built main library is 8 stories tall, and the largest library west of the Mississippi river. It incorporates its own impressive collection of books with that of San Jose State University, which gives me (and every other San Jose library patron) immediate access to academic and old, out-of-print books. The building is an architectural joy, with upper story windows giving 360 degree views of San Jose, and loaded with art tidbits along an “Alice in Wonderland” motif. It also has a small art gallery and a Beethoven museum, dozens of desks with free internet access you can your laptop in to, a language section with books in a wide variety of languages, from Amharic to Yiddish, and a reference librarian on every floor.
Besides the main library, there are 20 branch libraries, one of which exclusively has Spanish-language materials. Some, like my local one, are closed for reconstruction into a larger, more up-to-date model, but in any case, the majority of San Jose residents have a library within walking distance of their home. You can request materials from any library for free; and if the San Jose system doesn’t have what you want, you can search and request what you want from over 30 other public and academic libraries in the West.
But the San Jose Public Library’s advantages are balanced by the fact that it is urban and has a huge population to serve.Its circulation numbers are massive. San Jose is the 10th largest city in the United States, its residents range from the poorest to the richest people in the nation, and it has sizable Vietnamese-, Chinese-, Russian-, and Spanish-speaking communities. It’s true I can request a book, but it hasn’t been usual for me to request a book and to find out I’m the 108th person in line for the next available copy. Materials also have a nasty tendency to disappear (that is, be stolen) after a while.
Budget cuts have also forced the branches to have hours so short, they’re almost impossible. Most branches are closed on Sundays, but they’re also closed on Mondays until 2 pm. Most days the branch libraries close at 6 pm as well. The main library has longer hours, especially when San Jose State University is in session, but it can be yukky. I dread going into the stacks because there’s always a bunch of people snoring or eating in there. When I asked about it, a librarian told me they would only kick out homeless people sleeping in the library, but not someone who had a home they could be sleeping in instead, which seemed kind of backwards to me. The colorful couches which were so bright and vibrant less than 3 years ago, are now perma-stained in brown runny patches, and the furniture in the branches more than a year old, hasn’t fared much better.
So I was understandably amazed when I walked into the Sunnyvale library and observed its “quiet zone” and “cell phones off” rules. They had comfortable-looking couches for reading, too, but they were as clean as if some elf ran over and dilligently cleaned them every day. They had hundreds of DVDs available to borrow, and some of them were even recent releases, which you might only see on a shelving cart for a few minutes if you go into a San Jose library at the right time. At tables, or in chairs, the patrons were just reading books. Outside the library, there was plentiful parking, and it was all free, too. And the hours were those that could make a library rat like me weep for joy: open 7 days a week, from 10 am to 9 pm on weekdays.
That’s what you get when you live in a small suburb with really expensive houses. I’d be jealous, but they let me have a library card, so I can use their library as freely as my own.