Public Comment

Commentary: Berkeley Public Library is Still a Vibrant Institution

By Susan G. Kupfer
Tuesday May 23, 2006

Several articles in the press over the past year, most recently in the May 9 Daily Planet, have called continuing attention to the “mismanagement” of the Berkeley Public Library. I write, as chair of the Board of Library Trustees (BOLT), to inform the community that the library remains a vital, vibrant community institution with a dedicated staff and a focus on serving the needs of the public. The library is on sound fiscal footing, within the limits of our budget. Comprehensive planning for the next several years has been instituted and community feedback is being sought on a variety of proposed initiatives. 

Many of the articles in the press have focused on allegations regarding certain conflicts between staff and management at the library. These are personnel matters involving specific individuals and it is inappropriate for BOLT to issue public comment about them. We have therefore held our collective voice and have not responded. We have processes in place for considering and evaluating these claims and we want to assure the public that we are undertaking a serious review of them. Unfortunately, as they involve employees’ individual rights, those processes do not provide for public scrutiny of details during the evaluation. I do want to address in this commentary some of the issues that have been percolating over the past year.  


Library budget 

Financially, the library, due to careful management, is on solid ground. There is an operating surplus for fiscal 2006 and the fiscal 2007 budget proposes an increase in library services citywide. We are considering opening additional hours at Central and the branches, adding additional staff, and implementing certain technological services. Our budget review process continues through the adoption of the budget at the June meeting.  


Union charges 

SEIU 535, one of the unions representing library workers, has publicly raised allegations of retaliatory disciplinary actions against workers who have advocated on behalf of the union. The board has referred these specific allegations to the city attorney’s office for a complete review and has directed staff to comply with the city attorney’s investigation of the complaint. 


Radio frequency identification 

From the comments we have gotten at BOLT meetings, it is apparent that we need to continue the public discussion about the radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. Although we did not hold a separate public forum before the Board vote on RFID in 2004, the consideration of the issues surrounding the addition of RFID took place over several monthly public meetings before the Board voted to approve the use of the tags. The decision to approve RFID was made carefully and thoughtfully and only after the board and the staff had performed due diligence. Despite what you might hear, RFID is NOT a substitute for people at the library. We never intended to replace our irreplaceable library staff with machines. It is, rather, an attempt to eliminate repetitive injury of front desk staff, ease processing of increased limits on checkouts (which the public has cheerfully adopted and utilized) and dramatically increase the ability of front desk staff to offer personal guidance and support to library patrons. The public should know that over 60 percent of checkouts in April were processed through the RFID system. This represents a solid public acceptance. The board continues to consider best practices in the use of RFID and takes seriously the concerns raised in the public discussion about the use of library resources to establish this system. Our conclusion was, and is, that RFID is a useful, additional tool and that it can be implemented without invading our privacy rights and security. 


Labor-management committee 

The board established an ad hoc committee to consider labor-management issues arising from the workplace and service to the public. A committee of seven was appointed and weekly meetings began to take place in February. The committee identified several matters to address and began investigation of the first few items. At the end of March, the union members unilaterally withdrew from the work of the committee, citing an ongoing disciplinary matter (not involving the committee per se) with which they did not agree. The committee has not met since. On the other hand, the Shelving Task Force, formed by this committee, composed of staff from a variety of classifications, worked together to formulate data and conclusions which have contributed to our staffing and budget considerations for the next fiscal year.  


News about the library 

The positive news about the library these days, on the other hand, deserves to be placed within the public arena. Examples include:  


• The Central Library has reopened between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. each Sunday so that it is now open 7 days a week downtown. 

• There are 1.6 million library materials, including books, CDs and DVDs, available for circulation 

• Programming continues to be strong, including the Monday night Berkeley History program at Central in April and May and Children’s Day/Book Day on April 30 by city proclamation.  

• Our Teen Program, consolidated at Central, has reached out to underserved teens in Berkeley. 

• Development of our collection is fully funded and this past year has seen additional initiatives which, for example, purchased sufficient copies of popular materials to reduce queues for holds substantially and beefed up editions of e-books duplicating aspects of the print reference collection to make these widely available at the branches as well as electronically. 


Who serves on the Board of Library Trustees 

All of the members of Board of Library Trustees are volunteers who live in the Berkeley community. We devote dozens of hours per month to our work on behalf of the library. Our monthly meetings, on the third Wednesday of each month, are open to the public and many community members have taken advantage of the public comment session to address BOLT on a range of issues. We do listen to the concerns expressed in these sessions, as well as the correspondence received at the library. It is our responsibility to weigh the various views and to establish sound policy and management of the library.  

It should not surprise anyone reading this that our community has a wealth of committed citizens expressing a variety of views on almost any issue. They are vocal and active in the public debate. It is what many of us cherish about living in Berkeley. In a representative democracy, however, decision-making is left to a smaller group to master the details of proposed actions and institute those that are appropriate. BOLT knows that we cannot please everyone all the time but we do want the community to understand that we listen carefully and, at all times, strive to use our best judgment in implementing policy. 


Susan G. Kupfer is the chair of the Board of Library Trustees.