Features & Columns

MLK Library Time Capsule

After 43 years, time capsule meets end of journey through time—and between libraries
sjsu time capsule CAPSULE REVIEW: For the past two years, San Jose's new MLK Main Library has housed a time capsule, moved twice since its initial burial in 1970 near the original MLK Library. To celebrate its 10th anniversary, the library will open the capsule. Photograph by Gary Singh

As of right now, the current incarnation of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Main Library celebrates its 10th anniversary. The kick-off festivities begin at 11am on Sept. 5, with a remarkable event. San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and San Jose State University President Mohammad Qayoumi will unveil the contents of a time capsule buried at the old King Library, on San Carlos Street, when that building opened in 1970.

Since the cycle of creation and destruction involved here borders on Eastern mysticism, allow me to explain: The time capsule was originally buried somewhere in front of the old MLK building, but in a quintessential San Jose maneuver, the capsule was accidentally dug up in 1987 when San Carlos was widened for the light rail. At that time, the capsule was resealed behind a plaque on the front wall of the building, facing the sidewalk. When the building was finally destroyed in 2011, the capsule was saved and transported to the new MLK Library, at Fourth and San Fernando, now celebrating a well-deserved 10th birthday.

Combining a public library with a university library was not a popular idea at first. It irked quite a few stodgy academics. They complained that a university library does not belong to the same caste as a lowly public library. The two should not be allowed to mix. That was the complaint. Obviously, at least to me, the critics were proven wrong. With the immense popularity of the place nowadays, no one can argue against the current reincarnation.

I say "reincarnation" because after all the celebrations conclude, the current era represents merely the next stage in a long cycle of library death and rebirth unique to San Jose. Since I grew up and evolved in and out of these libraries, I harbor an admittedly strange connection to the cycles of creation and destruction at play here. Which is why it's healthy to meditate on the impermanence of everything.

During the decades before the San Carlos Street location emerged, the San Jose main library was located in the old part of the building now housing the San Jose Museum of Art. My mom, a lifelong librarian, worked in that building during the 1960s. The new Main Branch debuted in 1970 on San Carlos Street, and throughout most of the next 20 years, before the next reincarnation of the convention center came along, Almaden Expressway ran all the way from Blossom Hill to Downtown, before it turned into a regular street, South Almaden Ave., and then barreled into the back of the library. From the back, one could drive right around the library to San Carlos. Nowadays, what's left of that tiny incarnation of Almaden Ave. ends behind the convention center. As a kid before Highway 87 existed, I remember riding with my mom all the way up that road, from South San Jose, in order to get to the main library. As early as age 7, I hung out in that building.

Years later, over at SJSU, two particular libraries ruled the campus: 1) the Clark Library, where I suffered through a miserable student-assistant job shelving books while hung over, and 2) the old crumbling Wahlquist Library at 4th and San Fernando. The Wahlquist Library adjoined another crumbling building that housed the financial operations of the entire university—the controller's office, payroll, accounts receivable and all that left-brain stuff. During my last year in college, I suffered through a god-awful PC tech support job in those offices. It was likewise miserable. Then, in 2003, a few years after the crumbling Wahlquist Library was demolished, the current MLK Library ushered in a new era, merging all three—the Clark, Wahlquist and former MLK libraries—each one including a piece of my own history. I felt a strange sense of poetic renewal. There's an ancient term for this: Samsara, the continuing cycles of rebirth and suffering. In fact, my whole life story seems intertwined with the endless cycles of library creation and destruction in this town, all the way through college. When I finally depart this place, I shall request my remains be placed in a time capsule, along with this column, and then buried underneath the library, to be accidentally dug up for the next cycle.