Library Board Considers Moving South Berkeley Branch

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday August 08, 2006

Should the South Berkeley branch library at Russell and Martin Luther King be moved to the new Ed Roberts campus to be built at the corner of Woolsey and Adeline? The Berkeley Library Board of Library trustees in Berkeley has allocated close to $25,000 for a consulting firm to do a community needs-based assessment for the South Berkeley library branch this month in an attempt to answer this question.  

West Berkeley-based HTA consultants has been hired to carry out up to four different types of surveys of community members who live, work or recreate in the south Berkeley area in order to determine whether moving the South Berkeley branch to the proposed Ed Roberts Campus will prove helpful to the local community. 

The South Berkeley branch has been working out of its 1901 Russell St. address since the single-story building was first built in 1963. With its vast collections of books, periodicals, and CDs as well as how-to books which are a part of the adjacent tool-lending library, it has grown into something of a neighborhood institution over the years. 

“The Board of Library trustees felt that community input is the most important aspect in making this decision. We want to gather details of how library users would like to see the library expand and what would suit their needs best at this point of time. Depending on this, the board will make a decision on whether or not to consider a possible move,” said Alan Bern, Berkeley Public Library Community Relations Librarian. 

“We want to ask questions about the positives and negatives of using the current South Berkeley branch and how it can be made better to cater to the needs of all our patrons, including the elderly, the disabled and the youth. Currently, the branch is located in a very old building, which is not ADA-accessible There is also no place for youth programs. We need to give some of these problems serious consideration. In the future we would like to perform this type of a community assessment on all our other branches,” said Bern. 

Bern added that the entire process would be carried out relatively rapidly and would start out by having a focus group comprised of library stakeholders and regular users whose feedback would be used to construct survey questions that would be asked to the public. A total of 285 to 344 community members will be surveyed overall.  

“We are excited because HTA will be training the youth in Berkeley to carry out the face-to-face surveys,” Bern said. Around 120 to 140 people will be questioned in the face-to-face survey which will be carried out in places such as the Ashby BART station, the nearby flea market, summer schools, senior centers and grocery stores. 

Around 120 to 140 more people will be randomly selected by zip code to take part in a semi-automated telephone survey that will be carried out by a professional team. Surveys of current users—about three to four dozen in total—will be carried out at the branch premises itself. 

Finally, there will be a face-to-face survey of key stakeholders and leaders of the community.  

Bern added that the Board of Trustees were very eager to know the results of the surveys because they are the key to understanding South Berkeley and more important, the needs of those who are a part of the South Berkeley community.  

“After the completion of the surveys a report will be prepared and presented to the board which will be followed by other meetings. Depending on all of the above, if it makes sense to move the library branch, the proper steps will be gradually carried out. But all this is quite a bit further down the line. First comes the assessment,” said Bern. 

Jeri Ewart, head librarian of the South Berkeley branch, said that the community assessment was a very positive step. “Nothing has been written in stone yet. However, we feel that the library will benefit from the move to the Ed Roberts campus and we want to find out if the public is enthusiastic about it in the same way we are.”  

Ewart added that all the branches—including the south branch which was the smallest of the lot—needed to be refurbished. 

“Every inch of the 5,000 square feet of space has been used. We had people sitting on top of each other even before the computers, the self check-out machines and other technology moved into the library. Things have become worse since then and currently there is no place for wheelchair users to move about. The proposed site at the Ed Roberts campus has twice as much space. This is a good opportunity. In fact it is the only opportunity to get a new space without going through a bond measure. Since we are currently located in a very old building, it is not possible to build on top or build along the sides. The city will not give us the variance to do so. We cannot afford to purchase a plot of land and start building from scratch. The Ed Roberts campus provides us with something of a condo situation which allows organizations to utilize the space available to them in the best possible way. It’s financially very doable,” she said. 

In the past, consultants have suggested tearing down the current structure on Russell Street and rebuilding it. However the over-all unstable condition of the building and the blown-on ceiling with the asbestos has made it impossible to carry out any kind of new construction. As Bern puts it, the problems with space will not go away by just “fixing” the place up because it’s virtually impossible to do so.  

The proposed Ed Roberts Campus has already been approved by the City of Berkeley to start building, and is scheduled to break ground for construction on the east end of the Ashby BART parking lot very soon. 

Adam Broner, tool-lending specialist at the Berkeley tool-lending library, said that he was excited at the prospect of the South Berkeley branch moving to the Ed Roberts campus. “We have enjoyed the close proximity of the branch. We get a lot of our patrons from there and the branch hosts a lot of how-to videos and books which help them. However, a move would help the tool-lending library because currently we operate from a place which is the size of a trailer. We could really do with more space, although it would mean losing the nice relation with the library.”