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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

At 20, San Jose’s MLK library remains a partnership for the books

Over breakfast at the Fairmont in 1997, Susan Hammer and Bob Caret — then the mayor of San Jose and president of San Jose State — hit on the idea to collaborate on a brand-new library that would be open to both residents and SJSU students. Together, they later said, both entities could expand their library services beyond what either could do alone.

It seems like a simple idea, but they were pioneers. When the $177.5 million Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library opened on the edge of campus in August 2003, it was the first collaboration of its kind between a major U.S. city and university.

The two institutions are coming together again Wednesday to celebrate the 20th anniversary of a building and partnership that — despite its bumps — has worked out better than most would have predicted.

The anniversary celebration, which is free and open to the public, will start at 1 p.m. with the Spartan Marching Band playing in the university-facing Caret Plaza. The festivities will move indoors after that for a program featuring Mayor Matt Mahan, SJSU President Cynthia Teniente-Matson, City Librarian Jill Bourne, SJSU Library Dean Michael Meth, San Jose Councilman Omar Torres and State Sen. Dave Cortese, bookended by performances from the SJSU Choraliers and folklórico group Los Lupeños de San José.

The eight-story building on the corner of Fourth and San Fernando streets has become a campus landmark visited by tens of millions of residents and students. A red LED counter behind the borrowing desk that has tallied the number of items borrowed since the library opened in 2003 now stands at more than 254,457,000.

But the library’s success isn’t just because of the books on its shelves but what surrounds those books.

On the fifth floor alone, you’ve got the Martha H. Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies and the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, both treasures troves for fans and researchers of two great artists. The California Room is filled with books, maps and artifacts related to the history of the state and the region and has hosted several culturally significant exhibitions, including the current “Pinoytown Rising: Filipino Americans in Santa Clara Valley.”

The fifth floor is also home to a regular showcase of community art and exhibitions — one currently showcasing the costumes of Ensamble Folclórico Colibri — and more community art can be found in the second floor’s DiNapoli Gallery. The lower level is home to a Materials Library — with 500 samples of metals, glass, ceramics and polymers — and the SJSU Rapid Prototype Lab, containing everything from sewing machines to 3D printers.

The San Jose Public Library plans to unveil Wednesday 10 commemorative library card designs in honor of the 20th anniversary, which will highlight some of the public art and other installations you can find in the library.

Artist Mel Chin worked with a team to create “Recolecciones,” a collection of 34 works throughout the eight-story building. A few of my favorites include the revolving bookshelf in the first-floor Mysteries section, the Monarch butterflies that migrate up the stairwell and the study tables shaped like continental tectonic plates (made with granite mined from each represented continent) in the Grant Reading Room on the eighth-floor — which has some of the best views of downtown San Jose.

But one stands out in its subtlety. If you look at the four columns framing the library’s atrium on the ground floor, one is different from the others. That’s because its covered in a redwood veneer milled from a tree that had to be removed to make room for the library. There’s irony all over the place in cutting down a tree to make a place for books, but you can also see it as a nod to preserving a portion of the past while making way for the future.

That’s a bit like what Susan Hammer and Bob Caret were doing with this pioneering library. And that’s worth celebrating.

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