Public Comment

Commentary: Berkeley Libraries Now Automated And Unwelcoming

By Gail Todd
Tuesday April 11, 2006

What a sad day. I returned my library book at my local branch, picked up the book I had reserved, and checked it out—all without speaking to a soul, much less a wise librarian.  

It is the stuff of legends—the alert librarian who reaches out to a distressed child, or a shy child, or an at-risk child and steers that child towards a love of books and from there to a life of possibility. Author Barbara Kingsolver celebrates every living librarian “on behalf of the souls they never knew they saved.” 

But today, in Berkeley, every library process is impersonal: We reserve books via computer, retrieve our reserved books from an alphabetized shelf, and check them out using an automated machine. 

Even returning books is solitary. As a child, one of my first—and most valuable—ethics lesson was given by a librarian: When you return books late, you pay a fine. However, now that we anonymously toss our overdue books through a silent slot and pay our fines at an unrelated time in the future (if at all), this simple lesson is lost.  

Are we hiding our librarians to save money? Certainly the wealthy Bay Area with its countless technological gadgets is wealthier than the little frontier communities that could afford a visible librarian. Is it to free the librarians for more important tasks? What is more important than guiding patrons towards a love of books? 

And who will support this new, unwelcoming library financially? Last time Berkeley successfully voted for a special library tax, I calculated that I could buy a brand new hardcover book every two weeks for what the new tax would cost me. However, I voted for the tax because I loved my library—and my librarian. 

Today, who will be inspired to become a librarian? Did beloved children's author Beverly Cleary become a librarian just to order and catalogue books out of sight? Did Benjamin Franklin? 

My library, the North Branch of the Berkeley Public Library, has actually set up a barricade on the check-out desk to keep patrons from setting their books down on the counter. When I asked what it was for, I was told that “Books on the counter upset the reader.” In this new library the reader, it seems, is now the machine that checks out the books, not the person who curls up on the couch at home reading them. Well, guess what North Branch? I’m still the reader and I’m upset. 


Gail Todd is a 36-year Berkeley resident.›