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Los Altos Friends group petitions city to remain at civic center


Bruce Barton/Town Crier
Margaret Brooks, left, standing, asks for a show of hands last week on whether Friends of the Library of Los Altos should insist on remaining at the civic center.

Moving Friends of the Library of Los Altos operations off the city’s civic center campus is not an option, according to supporters who met last week to discuss the nonprofit group’s next steps. Friends also launched a petition drive to remain at a site they’ve called home for nearly 45 years.

At the occasionally-heated Jan. 8 meeting at the Los Altos main library, Friends’ leading officers presented scenarios for continuing operations both on and off the civic center campus. But as the off-site options revealed increased costs and less revenue for the library’s programs, attendees erupted.

“This is ridiculous,” one audience member asserted.

“Some are at acceptance (of moving off-site) – I am not,” said another.

“We have to light a fire – make it painful for (the city council),” said yet another.

One audience member dismissed accepting off-site options as “a bad negotiating strategy.”

Friends of the Library, with 250 active volunteers and approximately 700 members, sorts and processes hundreds of used books weekly for book sales. The group raised a record-setting $222,800 for 2018-2019 alone, $144,200 from book sales.

Proceeds support library programs – including storytimes for toddlers and summer reading for teens – and provide funds for new library materials. Interim community librarian Rose Baiza said Friends last year donated $57,000 for acquisition of best-sellers, $32,000 for new adult books and $24,000 for DVDs and other media.

Space constraints

For decades, the city allowed Friends members to sort books in a 960-square-foot room at Hillview Community Center and offered storage space in preparation for book sales. But the recent demolition of the old Hillview center and construction of a new, smaller center left Friends scrambling to retain space on-site.

An ad hoc committee offered a temporary solution with smaller sorting spaces and portable sheds for storage at the civic center, but a long-term solution remains elusive.

While city officials have sympathized with Friends, they’ve noted that the new community center is approximately 5,000 square feet smaller than the previous one, so they’ve had to prioritize city-sponsored activities. Friends serves the local libraries, which are run through the Santa Clara County Library District.

But Friends supporters emphasized that the organization’s contributions are local and specific to Los Altos, and that other cities allow their Friends of the Library groups to work on-site at their libraries.

Suzanne Epstein, a Friends director, noted the city of Saratoga calls its Friends group a “community partner” and provides 1,600 square feet of on-site space, two storage sheds and a 1,700-square-foot “store” off-site.

“It’s the norm (for cities to provide space), and it used to be the norm in Los Altos,” she said.

The Los Altos Friends group said it needs a 24-foot-by-40-foot space for sorting that includes lighting and heating, as well as two storage sheds, provided by the city at no cost. The group would incur an estimated $56,000 in annual costs by moving off the civic center campus to an alternative such as the Woodland Branch Library or Rosita Park, among the several off-site options discussed. Another attendee suggested the ground floor in the Garden House at Shoup Park.

However, any off-site plan would require the group to pay for movers and transportation, as books dropped off at the library would be hauled elsewhere. Friends estimated that book-sale revenue would decrease by 40%.

Some supporters believe moving off the civic center campus would present too many logistical challenges and could lead to the group’s dissolution.

A proverbial light at the end of tunnel is a possible expansion of the main library. Friends members indicated that an expansion – one plan calls for an increase from the current 28,000 to 40,000 square feet – would provide space for Friends’ sorting and storage. But plans are not concrete.

“It’s not all gloom and doom.There is something we can do,” said Epstein, and members see the petition as a start.

To view the petition, visit change.org and search “Los Altos Library.”

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