Berkeley celebrates grand re-opening of larger, renovated Central Library
Thousands of residents, travelers and especially students swarmed the grand re-opening of the Berkeley Public Library Saturday morning, evoking images of student demonstrations of the past while setting the stage for future student book reports of the future.
By the time the library opened the crowd was so dense that it took some 20 minutes to get everyone inside the state-of-the-art five-story facility.
Mayor Shirley Dean conveyed popular sentiment when she asked the attentive audience, "Is this a great library?”
“Great cities make great libraries and great libraries make great cities,” Dean said. “This will serve the library-hungry community for the next 50 years. Here you will find the answers and the questions.”
As Dean beamed, members of the street theater group Wise Fool dazzled onlookers, towering above them on stilts. On the backs of the Wise Fools’ shirts, green signs read simply, “Berkeley Public Library.”
Standing at the podium addressing the thousands of people, library trustee Kevin James thanked the hundreds of workers for the hundreds of thousands of working hours they put in.
“Every single member of that staff has made significant contributions,” James said.
James also thanked the residents of Berkeley: “Our informed public is essential to a democracy.”
James challenged naysayers who say “that libraries are becoming obsolete (and that) Berkeley is too divided politically and culturally to accomplish anything.”
Central Library’s renovation began in 1992. Architect Cynthia Ripley was commissioned to study methods of expanding and modernizing the landmark building, which is listed the National Register of Historic Places. It was concluded that the original reading room, lobby and two-story reference and children’s rooms should be renovated, and 70,000 square feet added.
Berkeley approved $30 million in project funding when it passed Measure S in 1996. Additional funds were also raised toward the $39 million total.
Saturday’s huge turnout comes on the heels of a large-scale public relations and advertising campaign involving 4,000 personal invitations and announcements to every home in Berkeley - a city of more than 100,000 residents - according to Library Manager Diane Davenport.
“I’m not sure we knew that there would be this many,” Davenport said. “We are here for a public that really supports us.”
The old library closed in November 1998, and reopened a year and a half after initial projections – but to open arms.
An analysis in 1998 ranked Berkeley first in per-capita library usage among the state’s 33 largest cities. That statistic was underscored by such regular users as Esther Davies.
“I’ve been waiting for this with my nose pressed to the door,” Davies said.
The Berkeley Public Library originated on Shattuck Avenue in 1893 as a storefront and has undergone numerous transformations and expansions since. In 1931, during the Great Depression, the library was moved to its current location. Its Art Deco architecture, spawned in Paris in the 1920s, recalls other American buildings such as those in the trendy South Beach section of Miami Beach, Fla.
The temporary Berkeley Public Library, located at 2121 Allston Way, closed on Feb. 28. The new facility, at 2090 Kittredge St., shines in contrast to the older architecture surrounding it. Inside, two large columns provide the backdrop to the windows that go several floors up above the front doors.
Thousands of people filled in behind the windows and viewed the mixing of new construction and what is left of the old library, including the oak tables and restored marble.
Among the swarm of people young and old was Project Manager Elena Engel, carrying a big smile and a bouquet of flowers.
“We knew people were dying to come and see the library,” Engel said. “People in Berkeley are going to really enjoy this.”
Of particular enjoyment to many of the attendees were the seven miles of bookshelves containing books, videos, CDs, cassettes and DVDs, among other material. Internet-accessible computers are spread throughout the public areas and in an electronic classroom, showcasing a merger of new and old research and educational methods.
Alice Walker’s “goddess”
The public enthusiastically welcomed renowned author and keynote speaker Alice Walker to the Reading Room on the second floor. The crowd grew so large that people were listening to her speech on the stairs to the first floor. Cheers came frequently, often from people who could not even see Walker on stage.
“I’m really glad to be in a city that is guarded by women,” Walker said. “The library is always protected by a goddess. The goddess of attainable knowledge lives in this building.”
The community will be worshipping that goddess in the coming years.