The Tobin Library (Reception Desk)

There are plenty of reasons to change the name of a building, and most* of them are politically motivated (see: Lenin, then Stalin).

But despite the City’s politicking to satisfy a charitable organization’s request to have the Oakwell Branch Library re-named to honor the late Robert L.B. Tobin, it looks like the San Antonio Public Library Board of Trustees — the citizen body with exclusive naming rights over library buildings — may only consider ways “to recognize the Tobin name within the branch.” (Emphasis added.)

At least that’s how the Current interprets last week’s library press release, inviting the 200,000 patrons who use the educational and climate-controlled District 10 asset each year to come up with ways to commemorate the Tobin family. (Our press-release decoder ring says a plaque or special Tobin aisle might be proposed.)

A reluctant Library Board Chair John Nicholas will admit that any idea of a re-naming is polarizing, that Mayor Phil Hardberger and District 10 Councilman Chip Haass have lobbied for a name change, and that the process so far has been full of hearsay and “a mess.”

Public hearings will be held at the Oakwell Branch Library at 7 p.m. August 30 and 2 p.m. September 9, 4134 Harry Wurzbach Road. 207-2638. The Library Board holds its regular monthly public meeting tonight at 4:30 p.m. at the Brook Hollow Library, 530 Heimer Road.

Why would you, or the Mayor, or the Councilman, or Tobin Endowment co-trustee J. Bruce Bugg, think re-naming an existing public library after the late philanthropist would be a slam dunk? Yes, 40 years ago Tobin donated the 1.5 acres that the District 10 branch sits on — valued at $650,000 today, as Bugg pointedly reminded Mayor Phil Hardberger in an April letter. Bugg also mentioned a land gift the Endowment was negotiating at the time with the City — a 21-acre tract of land to tack onto the Robert L.B. Tobin Park on Ira Lee Road, valued at $350,000 — lest the City forget the Endowment’s generosity. The co-trustee wrapped up his pitch by putting a bugg in the mayor’s ear: Wouldn’t it be nice if the Oakwell Branch was re-named the “Tobin Library?” Causing City officials, including former San Antonio Mayor Howard Peak, to craft many emails to each other with the subject heading: “Re: Re-naming of Oakwell Library” and filled with politico-action verb-speak like “The Mayor wants Oakwell Library re-named for the Tobins and he will assist with whatever needs to be done to get this accomplished” and “What else can the Councilman do to help make this happen?”

There hasn’t been a library re-naming in recent memory, and so far there’s been fallout over the process of considering one now `see “Tobin or Not Tobin,” August 2-8, 2006`, including a library boardmember’s angry resignation (she didn’t like the politickin’), and, to head off the appearance of impropriety, the withdrawal of a $250,000 grant application to the Tobin Endowment originally made by the library system’s fundraising arm, the San Antonio Public Library Foundation. (This, though the system is in no position to turn down freebies: the San Antonio Public Library’s overall budget is about $24 million, with just over 80 percent of that coming from the City. Library Board Chair Nicholas recently appeared before City Council with his alms bowl outstretched, asking that the upcoming budget allocate an extra $1 million to the 23-branch system).

The Mayor and Councilman’s offices said the library board’s feathers might be ruffled because it looks like the City wants to trade the Oakwell name for the Tobin Endowment’s sundry land and financial support. Which is just part of politics, Haas said.

“As a `library-board` appointee, I could see how they’d think there was a quid pro quo,” Haass said. “As a councilperson, I’m always looking for … opportunities so you don’t have to dig into the public trough … The Tobin Endowment has so much money, it’s just a good opportunity to get as much as you can. Sorta like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.”

Following that line of reasoning, advocates and opponents of re-naming may do well to remember that when the billionaire Gateses give big gifts, they’re usually honored by having a whole new facility named after them.

Because, as Councilman Haass will admit: “Some people don’t like change.”

(*A few re-namings are just a revenge dagger stabbed into the heart of the people who use a building. Like re-naming Washington National Airport the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in 1998: Whose memory was so short that they forgot the Gipper fired 11,000 air-traffic controllers in 1981 for striking? “I’d rather have a hot poker in my eye than have an airport named after him,” a rep at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said at the time. And to this day you can catch a flight to the nation’s capital and have a grizzled still-defiant pilot come over the P.A. and say: “I refuse to acknowledge the place you just landed by its strike-busting name. Keep your seat belts on while we taxi on up to it.” But the Current digresses.) 

Scroll to read more San Antonio News articles
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.