When I was a tweenager, the library was pretty much the greatest place on earth. Because I was the charming combination of antisocial and judgmental, I could hide in the stacks for hours, content with the lastest Lois Duncan novela and my sense of superiority. Throughout high school and college, the library remained a great place to read, study, and avoid the moronic masses. After graduating, I left my love of neatly categorized stacks and quiet hallways and gave in to the reckless hedonism (read: Internet dependency) of my twenties. What a waste. However, I've recently rediscovered the magic of the library: it's the perfect place to while away hours, research obscure serial killers, or introduce myself to manga (the kids are onto something!). Hell, I'm even writing this from a comfy chair on the second floor of the Mission Branch. Nerd cred, restored.
My journey to find the best and brightest of the San Francisco library scene began when I hopped on BART to the Main Branch of the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL). Just steps from the Civic Center BART stop, the SFPL Main Branch is the largest and most in-chargest of them all. It's got pretty much everything you could ask for in a library, with the added bonus of being pretty damn beautiful.
I roamed the stacks and picked up about a thousand books (okay, five) that I really wanted. When I made it to the top floor, I made the best discovery ever: an outdoor patio, complete with benches and potted flowers. It was like I had wandered into a romantic comedy. Isn't Tom Hanks supposed to propose to me up there or something?
The Main Branch also has several special rooms, focusing on everything from LGBT issues to Filipino history and more. It's nice to see so many different groups represented, and feels like a true reflection of San Francisco culture. I browsed the books a bit more and made my way to the DVD area. The selection is pretty impressive, ranging from series of popular TV shows (including Big Love — racy!) to the classics. I decided I needed to watch Season 2 of Arrested Development , so I grabbed the DVDs and headed to check out. Since I have a library card, I used the self checkout and was done within a few minutes. I even made a friend with a nice homeless man who was waiting in line behind me ... he really liked my hair.
I love attention and I hope you do, too: if you're gonna be kicking it at the Main Branch, you're gonna be kicking it with the lovely homeless people of our city. I don't have a problem with this but consider yourself warned if you're a terrible person. I kid! Also, grow a heart. I kid again!
Next on my list to conquer was the Potrero Hill Branch of the SFPL. Recently remodeled, the branch reopened on March 6th, 2010. It's absolutely beautiful, with a cool, utilitarian feeling, plenty of room to spread out and study, lightning fast Wi-Fi, and best of all, an unrivaled view of the city. It takes your breath away. This wouldn't be the ideal place for an easily distracted person to get work done because you'd be staring out the large glass windows all day (goodbye deadline, hello daydreaming!). This is the library to take visitors to if you want to impress the hell out of them. They'll never want to go back to whatever podunk town they fell out of, trust me.
My final stop in the SFPL tour was the Bernal Heights Branch. Another recently remodeled library, it's looking really spiffy. Yes, spiffy is the right word. This library wins the prize for the most plentiful, comfortable seating ever. It's also the most kid-friendly of the bunch, with almost an entire floor dedicated to the little rascals. This may be a positive or a negative depending on your point of view.
I discovered quite a few local treasures beyond the public library system. First, I checked out Bold Italic favorite, the Mechanic's Institute Library and Chess Room.
Unlike our public system, this sucker ain't free. A year long membership will set you back 95 bones. While that doesn't afford you the largest collection of books, it does set you up for some of the most delicious chairs I've ever had the pleasure of settling my fat ass into. In addition to being an absolutely sublime place to sleep — I mean study — your membership entitles you to free movie showings and lectures with bigwigs. For example, I'm going to see San Francisco Poet Laureate Diane di Prima speak there in a couple of weeks. Fancy. Also, if you're into chess (nerd!), they host frequent games. My time at the Mechanic's Institute was mainly spent snoring in a chair and then crashing a wine tasting group's party: both highly recommended.
From there I made my way to The Commonwealth Club, a group for overeducated pansies who enjoy regular lectures concerning our world being completely screwed. I fit right in. Located on Market street in the heart of the FiDi, The Commonwealth Club library is a great place to hide from your boss during lunch if you so desire. And I so desire.
The library is found in the common area right through the entrance and holds copies of every book from every speaker the club has hosted. In addition, they've got tons of the classics, and an excitingly large amount of Twain. The library itself is small, but the real reason to chillax here is the Wi-Fi and the comfy chairs/large tables (perfect for napping on or under).
Bonus points if you drop by on a day when they're hosting an event and you can sneak something delicious from the buffet. A person could make a feast of tropical fruits and grilled veggie sandwiches if they were so inclined. Which I wasn't. Stealing is wrong, kids.
My next move was to get really obscure on your asses. That's right, the Museum of Russian Culture in Pacific Heights. One of my best friends is Russian and the extent of my knowledge of their culture is that they love arguing, screaming, arguing while screaming, and shopping for Polo Ralph Lauren on deep discount at Ross Dress for Less. In my attempts to become less racist, I decided to immerse myself in the Museum's library.
First, you should know that pretty much everything in their collection is written in Russian. So unless you read Russian, this is not the reading library for you. Second, this place is totally great. Although I couldn't read anything and was clearly not Russian/seemed slow in the head, everyone was very welcoming. I asked lots of questions about my favorite Russian authors (Tolstoy: Perv or Super Perv?) and generally fell in love. If you're looking for a crash course in Russian awesomeness and a good place to relax, definitely head here.
My final stop in my library odyssey was the Prelinger Library. Located in SOMA, it's as tiny as it is adorable. I actually tried to make the trek once before but found them closed. This time, I was extra careful to call ahead and make sure someone would be there.
The Prelinger Library is basically a very large archive of ephemera: maps, photos, diagrams, films, and all sorts of cultural propaganda. I came across some amazing photos of San Francisco taken days after the 1906 earthquake and stared slack-jawed at them for approximately five minutes. Rick Prelinger, the man who founded the archive with his wife, can field any questions you might have. Rick is super nice and will talk to you for hours, but in a totally non-crazy way.
Because it's a collection of historical items with expired or nonexistent copyright, you're encouraged to take pictures, scans, or copies of whatever strikes your fancy. And a lot did. I think I took enough photos to keep a blog about SF history alive for about fifteen years. Priorities, people. ABB, Always Be Blogging.
If you want to visit any of the public libraries that I mentioned, check out sfpl.org for details. Most libraries are open seven days a week, but times vary based on the branch. If you're into the Prelinger Library (and you should be), they're open Wednesdays and Sundays but are closed random days, so make sure to check the site and call ahead. The Commonwealth Club Library is open to members 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. The Museum of Russian Culture is open from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and Sundays. The Mechanic's Institute Library is open every day but Sunday, and if you go on the right Wednesday, you might just run into a wine tasting and end up hammered for free. Delightful!