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Gutting Our History: Public library slashes Texana and genealogy resources

January 9, 2014
San Antonio Public Library

San Antonio Public Library

Update 5:50pm Friday, Jan 10: We heard back from Caitlin Cowart, Community and Public Relations Manager for San Antonio Public Library, who said that plans to cut the Texana and Genealogy staff and hours have been shelved for now. (We heard this change was at the request of at least one councilperson.) The library is “not making any changes to services at this point,” she said, and noted that the San Antonio Public Library Foundation will continue to raise funds to support those departments.

With the 300th anniversary of the founding of San Antonio coming in 2018, a great many people and organizations have invoked our long and fabled history as a platform for action. Councilmember Diego Bernal and the editorial board of the Express-News have called for a new effort to re-envision and plan the environs of the Alamo, with the aim of restoring the original footprint of the Spanish mission and telling of the “momentous history” that happened there. The Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce has purveyed its own vision of the “Pathway to a Great City” by 2018.

Yet even as we venerate our city’s history, our city government and public officials seem determined to make it less accessible, less accurate and less substantial.  For a great many years, the Texana and Genealogy Department of the San Antonio Public Library has been a prime repository of that history. Readily accessible to the general public and specialized academic researchers (like me), Texana has held and grown a broad and important collection of materials on San Antonio’s history and development.  From a wealth of official city reports and documents to publications of the Chamber of Commerce and community organizations to invaluable clipping files and the 1930s “Public Health Survey” that documents the city’s venereal disease problem and rampant prostitution, the department’s resources are a vital first stop to anyone seeking to understand how this city was really shaped and who shaped it.

But now the Texana’s materials and services are about to be made enormously less accessible and available, perhaps even eliminated altogether. San Antonio Public Library director Ramiro Salazar chose to cut the department’s hours by 50 percent, to just 20 hours per week effective February 1. With that cut will come the departure of two of the department’s four staff members, including department head Frank Faulkner. Those staff reductions are perhaps the most problematic element of the cutback, because it means that the people who have built the collection and who regularly serve as guides to the city’s history will leave, taking with them years of knowledge and experience. The Current has called Salazar’s office and not received a response.

It is a most curious outcome, a most perplexing administrative decision. Has the city budget become so strained and limited that a major service of the library system has to be cut in half and perhaps eliminated? Can a community that aspires to be a “great city” with a “great downtown” not find sufficient funding to support a major public resource for historians, genealogists and the interested public? Why do a mayor and city manager who tout the city’s outstanding credit rating and find the money for a host of new public initiatives such as Café Commerce and Café College not attach some import to making our community’s history available to anyone and everyone?

A developer can tear down the Univision building and the “pink elephant” of Fiesta Plaza can be demolished, but we need to remember them, and maintain the record of who we are and what we did.

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  • Tejanarusa

    You are so right – the city too often disdains the importance of the Library’s resources, and looks there to cut funds. This is terrible, especially, as you say, losing the institutional memory. What can we do as “consumers” and citizens to save it?

  • Ben

    OUTRAGEOUS – this seems to be in line with what appears to be the a ttitude of some people who believe that the history of San Antonio didn’t begin until 1820 or so – hell the ITC doesn’t even have a section on the early Spanish settlers of the 1700s – someone should clue them in that Spaniards are Europeans, too!

  • teocaca

    Man this really sucks, seems the library is a soft target to be cut and slashed whenever the city leaders can’t come up with ways to generate funds. Damn tax the fracking oil companies for a percentage to maintain educational efforts. One oil company CEO salary would go a long way to maintain this library.

  • amp

    The Public Library’s Texana/Genealogy Department is a phenomenal collection of material that spans our city’s history and its many cultural groups. It is the place that diverse individuals including students, authors, avocational and professional historians, newspaper columnists, and genealogists visit to research stories of their families and this historic community. All of the city’s branch libraries refer patrons to Texana/Genealogy and rely on the department’s staff to offer programs to branch patrons throughout the city. As a non-circulating collection, the department does not and will never generate the visitation and circulation numbers of other library departments. It is not and never will attract crowds that access the children’s department, media collection or the wonderful new Swartz Center. In a city that celebrates and promotes its unique history and, as Saunders pointed out, is poised to celebrate its 300th anniversary, surely the City Council can work with city management to preserve and perpetuate this incomparable resource. AMP

  • dhuddle

    The Texana Department is an invaluable resource to San Antonians in general and to professional researchers in particular. Frank Faulkner loaded up the first role of census microfilm that I ever saw over 30 years ago. Frank and Matt and the crew have helped me more than I can say over all these years. Countless oil and gas mineral owners have been paid cumulatively hundreds of thousands of dollars as a result of information developed out of that library that led to their successful location. These are tremendously talented, very well-educated professional librarians managing an outstanding and precious asset that we’re talking about dumping. Shame on you, Ramiro Salazar! Shame on you.

  • LFF

    So Austin’s Texas State Library senses such a groundswell of interest in Texas history that it is expanding (as of January 11) its hours for Texana and family research collections, while in San Antonio, the most historically significant city in Texas, the very institution most responsible for nurturing such interest plans not only to slash hours for similar work but also to gut its highly respected Texana staff, wiping out hard-won institutional memory. Some sort of disconnect down here. San Antonio deserves better.

  • mdf

    Countless historians and their clients have depended on the collections of the Texana/Genealogy Department and its highly qualified staff to provide open access and guidance to records, clipping files, maps, and other materials that are not duplicated in any other institution in the City of San Antonio. Typical clients include numerous agencies that depend on the collection to carry out their legal responsibilities regarding the historic buildings and archeological sites that exist throughout the City and Bexar County; these include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, General Services Administration, Texas Department of Transportation, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and Texas Historical Commission. Restricted access would, unfortunately, have the effect of increasing costs associated with public projects.

  • LK

    Thanks to Mr. saunders, the comments below, and the City Council for responding in a positive manner to continue to support the history of this great city. I am certain that now that this issue has been brought to light, such foolishness will not be tolerated in the future. Everyone knows – San Antonio values its history!

  • Ken McLennan

    This is the second time that the Texana/Genealogy Department has been “on the chopping block.” The department used to be open during regular library hours, seven days a week. About four years ago, the department hours were reduced to 40 hours a week. The department is now closed on Sundays and Mondays. This will keep happening unless the public demands otherwise.

  • JM

    As others have noted, San Antonio possesses a rich and complex history, which citizens and researchers need to be able to access for a variety of purposes. While I laud the Foundation’s efforts to raise additional funds for the Library, the existence and staffing of The Texana Department is (or should be) a recognized core service, not icing on the cake.

    Even from a narrowly financial perspective, cutting the Texana department does not seem to make sense. Much of San Antonio’s economy revolves around heritage tourism; that means that repositories curating and providing access to resources documenting that heritage provide a very practical service and are of very clear economic value.

    When I moved here a few years back, it was a joy to discover the San Antonio Public Library System. Its popular and historical collections are really wonderful, as are the services it offers. SAPL really is a jewel in the city’s crown. I hope that city government recognizes this.

  • T. Lindsay Baker

    For many years I have used the Texas History/Genealogy Department of the San Antonio Public Library, and it has been an important resource for me in research for multiple books that I have written on the history of Texas. The fact that I have been able to go to this department of the library virtually any time during the week has been a great asset to me as a researcher who comes to San Antonio from another community. When I am on the road conducting research, I need to spend every hour of each day fruitfully, not waiting around for a repository with limited hours to open. This department of the San Antonio Public Library is an incredibly valuable resource for all researchers in Texas History and Genealogy, and reducing its hours of operation and its professional staff would impact people both in San Antonio and across the state. Please keep its current level of service and personnel. T. Lindsay Baker, Ph. D., Rio Vista, Texas

  • EBD

    The fight to maintain archives and accessibility to those archives is an ever present
    problem when politicians are willing to eliminate any funding for libraries/archives in the first budget go-around during periods of restricted income. It is the softest of targets as its supportive base is often apolitical.

    Archives have a purpose. George Santayana’s statement “those who cannot
    remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is often quoted. However, it is enlightening to read the context in which he makes this comment:

    “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible
    improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is
    perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In
    the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses
    progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition
    of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from
    experience.” George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Volume 1, 1905

    It is important to remember where we have been and how we got to the point we are
    now. It is important to remember the people involved in that transition. I am
    glad to hear that City Council is reconsidering their position and moving beyond information infancy.

  • TRCIII

    According to the article’s latest update a week-or-so ago, it looks like everything will remain status quo for now because of the “political pressure” brought to bear.
    But long-term, the future of that section of the library should be like everything else in the archival world: go digital, allow access online and cut the costs. If you need specialized assistance, make an appointment.
    This is (literally) history, so who cares how much access is available except a handful of researchers? If that section of the library was of more interest, they would need to keep the staff and retain the hours of operation to maintain a level of service to meet the demands of the public, but apparently, that’s just not the case, or we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.
    Instead, it sounds like we’ve got the usual few culprits from the hysterical society costing the city thousands so they can (in this case) maintain access to a treasured piece of paper showing how many prostitutes worked in San Antonio a couple hundred years ago…and which someone looks at maybe every twenty years or so.
    Put those dollars into maintaining something more relevant for the general population. That’s all of our city tax dollars at work; and if the hystericals want to keep it so badly, let them raise the funds to maintain it. Or better yet, as I said up front, just digitize it and move on to discussions about some serious issue.