.One Good Idea

The MLK Main Library celebrates 20 years

In 20 years of existence, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Main Library has hosted more than 43 million visitors. I probably account for one million of those 43 million visits.

Last week, current and former library staff, plus current and former city dignitaries, all took the podium to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the main library, an epic landmark project that cannot be elevated enough. Anyone who was here 20 years ago will remember that merging the public library with the university library was not a slam dunk. This was a contentious idea from the beginning. 

In the mid-1990s when SJSU President Bob Caret and San Jose Mayor Susan Hammer first came up with the joint library concept, an ardent faction of people–mostly grouchy old English and History faculty–were dead against it. 

Tenured “memo meisters” with way too much time on their hands, they creeped out of the woodwork and sent letters to people all over campus. Even their own students jumped on board, taking part in small-level protests. A movement emerged, “SOUL: Save Our University Library.” 

They thought combining the public library with the university collection was a horrible idea. They didn’t think academics should be forced to mingle with the riff raff on the street. Their point was, and I’m paraphrasing, that people doing research for their master’s thesis shouldn’t have to step over bums playing checkers. That’s pretty close to the type of things people were saying. I remember this attitude, espoused by grown men, all of whom had tenure, so they weren’t about to get fired and could thus say whatever they wanted. 

Luckily for everyone else, though, the detractors have been proven wrong. Dead wrong.

Let me repeat some of the numbers that were mentioned at the 20th anniversary hoedown last week. Aside from the 43 million figure, the library has circulated nearly 220 million items, answered more than two million reference questions, offered nearly 24,000 programs attended by more than half a million people and hosted more than 15,000 volunteers who donated more than 731,000 hours. In 20 years, people have reserved computers 8.5 million times and nearly 1,500 group visits have unfolded, with over 63,000 attendees. 

Nowadays, there is no massive threat from the unwashed masses who might be invading the academic collection. It simply doesn’t happen. The bums playing checkers don’t spend too much time reading Volume 141 of Transactions of the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers up on the eighth floor anyway.

But in a sense, though, I’m already mischaracterizing the university collection, which includes 1.3 million physical items and 3.2 million digital items. It’s not just academic stuff. There’s so much else that appeals to anyone who can read. There are books you can’t find anywhere else, in dozens of languages. And anyone with a public library card can enable it for access to the SJSU materials. The whole building is the best conglomeration of free resources in San Jose history.

These days, if you ask around, most people can’t even imagine what it was like before the MLK Main Library existed, or how anyone could possibly have been against it. That’s how successful the place is.

All of which has happened because libraries have evolved tremendously since the ’90s. In MLK’s case, the library’s adult literacy center has helped more than 1,700 adults learning to speak, read and write in English. 165 adults have earned their high school diploma and a career certificate since 2016. 

The SJPL Works Center has offered over 1,500 job and career programs attended by over 9,000 job seekers and people looking to strengthen their professional skills, while also hosting nearly 1,000 business workshops attended by over 8,500 aspiring business owners or entrepreneurs looking to start or manage a small business. 

What’s more, these days librarians are not just librarians. They are actually social workers, first responders, job search counselors, research assistants, de facto therapists and any number of professions rolled into one. They are not “sitting around reading books all day,” as some idiots tend to suggest.

Best of all, the MLK library is right here in downtown San Jose. That means the bums are now playing checkers on laptops.

Gary Singh
Gary Singhhttps://www.garysingh.info/
Gary Singh’s byline has appeared over 1500 times, including newspaper columns, travel essays, art and music criticism, profiles, business journalism, lifestyle articles, poetry and short fiction. He is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy (2015, The History Press) and was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. An anthology of his Metro columns, Silicon Alleys, was published in 2020.

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