More than a century ago Rue Clifford rode a horse through the streets of South San Francisco to gather signatures to support building a library. Her work paid off: industrialist turned philanthropist Andrew Carnegie gave the young city $10,000 to build its first free public library on Grand Avenue.

That same library today is undergoing a $2.8 million renovation. When it reopens in fall 2016, it will boast a “genius bar” with iPads, faster Internet speeds, more power and data outlets and computers for public use. (Editor's note: South San Francisco celebrated the re-opening of the library on Oct. 15, 2016.)

To create a library for the 21st Century, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors granted South San Francisco $900,000 in funding from Measure A, the half-cent countywide sales tax approved by voters in November 2012. The remainder of the work is funded by South San Francisco and other grants.

“Today libraries serve as community centers and must meet a range of new and changing needs,” said Supervisor Dave Pine, who championed the County’s investment in the library. “When the Grand Avenue Library reopens, local residents and visitors will enjoy a vastly improved facility that will allow for expanded programming for seniors, children and families.”

While improving technology is important, South San Francisco is doing more than boosting bandwidth at the downtown library, which serves Old Town and other working-class neighborhoods home to large numbers of Latino, Filipino and other immigrant families. The library's high wooden shelves are being replaced by movable displays with reconfigured areas for young children, teens and those seeking a quiet spot.

The library's Spanish language collection is the strongest in the North County

“Children and parents will be able to enjoy a dedicated area with playful, age-appropriate furniture to encourage reading together and for hosting special story times,” said Valerie Sommer, the city’s Library Director. “We will also have a glass-enclosed area for quiet reading, meetings and classes and a collection focused much more on high-interest materials and current topics.”

The design followed months of planning.

“It was very important for us to have the community’s input when thinking about what was needed in a library, not only for our current residents, but for our future generations,” said South San Francisco Mayor Mark Addiego. “Having the County’s commitment has enabled the City to take this well-loved library and turn it into a library of the future for the betterment of all the patrons that will use it.”

The County is also funding library improvements with Measure A in East Palo Alto, Daly City, North Fair Oaks, Pacifica and Brisbane

The renovation also includes adding a new ADA-accessible restroom and an outdoor patio overlooking Grand Avenue. Doorways and sidewalks will be widened and improved for better access by elderly and disabled visitors. New paint and flooring will brighten the interior throughout.

The library will retain many of the touches that have made it a popular community center since its dedication in 1917. The exterior architecture, with its classic white columns, will be largely untouched except for the patio addition. Colorful storybook tiles above a fireplace in the current children’s wing, an addition made in 1951, will remain.

Long gone are the days when libraries were considered quiet repositories of books and magazines. The new model, Sommer said, is creating lively spaces where people of all ages can collaborate, explore and enjoy.

“We have a lot of seniors who visit us,” Sommer said, “and we’ve helped many of them get their first email address.”

The library also hosts scores of children after school and during the summer. To keep them engaged and to combat summer learning loss -- when students, particularly those from low-income families, lose some of what they learned in school -- the library provides free summer camps and free healthy snacks and lunches during the summer. That program was also funded by Measure A.  

Over the past two years, the County has invested $534,600 in Measure A funds on summer reading programs countywide

Sommer is looking forward to the day when the city celebrates the grand reopening of the Grand Avenue Branch Library. When it does open, visitors with a keen eye and a sense of history may notice a subtle nod to Rue Clifford, who taught in South San Francisco schools for 43 years and served nearly as long as secretary of the library board:

A small plush horse, suitable for both pretend riding and relaxed reading, will grace the children’s area.

Details about the renovation can be found on the city's website.

Published July 2016.