September 7, 2011
A Jewel of a Library

City Center’s Basement Treasure-trove

by Nancy Petrin

Last week I took a tour of the City Center library with senior volunteer librarian Jim Shalkham.

Jim Shalkham in the library

Jim Shalkham in the library

A memorial article that appeared in sangha-e! in early 2008  about Celeste West and her love for and devotion to the City Center library made a deep impression on Jim. He felt called to take up where Celeste’s work had left off and began volunteering and caring for the collection in March 2008. Jim carries on a tradition of library volunteers that started in the late 1960’s with Ananda Dahlenberg, SF Zen Center’s first librarian. Currently there are 8 volunteers who keep the library open 6 days a week (see days and hours below).

My immediate impression on entering the library was how alive, clean, and inviting the relatively small space is. As it is located on the bottom floor of the building one might assume that the room would be a bit dank and gloomy, but this is not the case. Jim said a request had been made to rearrange the library to create a meeting space on the entry side of the room. To accommodate that request the shelving was rearranged and the entire collection reorganized. As a result, the space feels very open, dust-free, and welcoming.

I was surprised to find out from Jim that the collection consists of 6500 books with over 100 CDs and 100 DVDs added the past year through a private donation. The core of the collection is Buddhist-oriented, though it includes Art, Gardening, and Cooking as well as other topics. According to Jim the most popular sections are Sutras (Buddhist texts) and Eihei Dogen (the founder of Soto Zen). One of the most unique sections is Beat Poetry. The foreign language section, in the reading room next to the library, has been growing, with books in Spanish, Chinese, German, and Russian. Also in the reading room are periodicals and a subsection of books that has been set aside for Guest Students.

Once among the books, I found my curiosity awakened. I asked Jim about hidden treasures of the library, while I knew that I would come back to explore on my own. One book, Non-Christian Religious Systems: Buddhism by T.W. Rhys Davids, that dates back to 1878 and an illustrated poetry book by Philip Whalen definitely qualify as treasures. When I later spoke with Michael Wenger, he pointed me to the extensive collection of Buddhist periodicals and said the collection is an impressive archive of Buddhist texts.

So if you have never been in the City Center library or it has been a while, I encourage you to come and explore, browse through the card catalogue, and enjoy this jewel of a library. See what treasures are revealed to you.

The library staff would love to hear from you. Please take a moment to fill out a very short survey for our Library Patrons put together by the library staff. If you are interested in getting involved in library projects, contact Jeffrey Schneider at

We extend our warm thanks to all the library volunteers past and present. Their work and commitment have created a wonderful place for us to explore the teachings and deepen our understanding of this place and this practice.

Library Hours: Monday mornings 8:30-11:30; M-F 1:30-5:30; Sat 11-12
Who can use the library: Everyone
Who can check out books: Current SFZC Members; Residents; EPP Participants; and those with permission through the City Center Director