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The modern library
April 21, 2014, 05:00 AM By Sue Lempert

Libraries are reinventing themselves so they don’t become obsolete. They are offering food, establishing teen centers, embracing new technology such as e-books and opening up their walls to the outside. The changes have worked. Instead of losing patrons, they are gaining them.

When you read about what libraries are doing in Boston and Chicago, you have to feel pretty proud of the San Mateo main library which has succeed in being ahead of its time. It was built to be beautiful on the inside and out. There are spectacular views of San Mateo from the third floor and floor-to-ceiling windows bring in light framed by the large redwood trees outside. There’s a teen center and a special teen library right next to a cafe. And recently, the library has gone very high-tech.


There are classes to instruct community members on how to download e-books on their iPads and Kindles. There’s a mobile app to provide access to the catalog, databases and e-books on your smartphone. New technology includes wireless printing capacity.

San Mateo is not alone. The Peninsula Library System, which includes all libraries in the county, will soon be providing high-speed Internet access to all. San Mateo increased its bandwidth to one gigabit per second. Soon each PLS members will also increase their bandwidth to this level.


Despite the high-tech advances, San Mateo’s libraries are still about books and people. Since 2006, when the main library was built and two branches renovated, the number of visitors has surpassed 5 million. The number of books in the main library alone is 245,257. When the City Council first authorized the building of a new site, it envisioned the library as a community center. And if you visit, you will find a composite of the local population — retirees looking for new offerings from the Friends of the Library; students, old and young without computers at home, using the library terminals; families with young children taking out stacks of books from the children’s library; newcomers taking advantage of the library’s free resources to search for jobs; and San Mateo’s diverse communities reading newspapers and books in their native language. The council had hoped one day the library could be open 24/7 but that still remains a dream. Still, through financial support from the library foundation, the main branch is open on Sundays.


Public libraries from their inception have helped poor kids climb the education ladder and have made a world of adventure, travel, romance, mystery and history available to all. Just for the price of a free library card. As Bill Moyers reports in an introduction to “The Public Library” … “a free library became a mecca for poor kids like me. ... There at the age of 11 or 12, I entered a boundless world to discover more lives to lead than I dreamed of. In books plucked from the shelves were stories that I have never forgotten: explorers whose adventures I could envy, heroes whose exploits I could admire, villains I could hiss.” His first two library books were Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days” and a popular version of ancient Greek and Roman myths.

Patrons of the San Mateo main library were invited to share what the facility meant to them. Their quotes are posted in the lobby. Here are a few: child — “The library changed my life by helping me to learn.” Adult — “Learning, exploring, to borrow up to 50 books, to meet authors, to be in wonder every time I visit the library. It’s the best feeling in the world.” Child — “The library is my home away from home. I love to come here.”


The San Mateo Library Foundation’s Gala event to help raise funds to keep the library open on Sundays throughout the year and extend other hours will be held Saturday, May 10 at the College of San Mateo. The guest author is A. Scott Berg who will answer questions about his new book, “Wilson,” a stunning biography of the man who was president of Princeton University and governor of New Jersey before he entered the White House to change the world. Perfect timing since this is the 100-year anniversary of World War I, the war to end all wars, which ironically led to World War II and other conflicts. Here’s the link:

Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at



Tags: library, books, mateo, world, their, libraries,

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