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A Conversation with San Francisco City Librarian Michael Lambert

JULES OLDER | July 24, 2019 | People


In March, Mayor London Breed announced that San Francisco had a new city librarian. Though her choice of Michael Lambert made perfect sense—he was, after all, the acting city librarian—it was still an unusual one. San Francisco recently sat down with Lambert in his spacious office in the central library. Here’s what he had to say.

Congratulations. You’re in the most desired library position of the nation, if not the universe.
It’s true. San Francisco has been declared the best library system in the country. It’s an unimaginable opportunity.

Do you think the fact that you’re a skateboarder helped you beat out the competition?
[Laughs] That wasn’t a minimal qualification. But I love skateboarding, and I’d actually visited San Francisco to skateboard here. It was one of the highlights of my teenage years.

You’re not only San Francisco’s first skateboarding head librarian, you’re also the first Asian American.
That’s true. I was born in Seoul, and my biological mother is Korean. My father, an American GI, was killed at the DMZ. I was raised by my American grandparents in South Carolina. I wasn’t reunited with my Korean mother until I was 27. It’s been wonderful meeting her and my extended Korean family.

What was it like growing up half-Korean in South Carolina?
It was challenging. But I had a loving family, and I found my tribe, my kindred spirits—a very dynamic, artistic group of friends. My own artistic outlet was skateboarding.

Skateboarder to librarian is not a usual course...
It was serendipity. In my freshman year at college, I needed a part-time job. The local library had one. I catalogued and shelved periodicals. I loved it. And I love books.

What are you reading now?
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. I’m a history buff.

There are serious challenges in your new job. Like, how do you handle people with mental and/or drug problems who behave badly in the library?
We serve everyone with compassion and empathy. But we don’t condone bad behavior. We have a code of conduct, and for the most egregious violations, anyone can have their library privileges suspended.

What’s the best part of your new job?
Serving this community. I love the diversity of San Francisco, and our libraries are the community’s living room.

The worst part?
Prioritization. So many opportunities to serve, to be innovative. Reconciling competing priorities is a challenge for me.

You work all the time, including nights and Sundays. How does this impact the rest of your life (if you have a rest of your life)?
I love the work we do. I sometimes bring my son to events here. I have a wonderful work-life balance—lots of exercise and lots of friends.

Moving forward, what’s your boldest idea?
There are libraries in other countries that are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. How can we extend our reach? That’s our boldest challenge.


Photography by: JEN SISKA