Public Comment

Commentary: Pros and Cons of New South Berkeley Library

By Christopher Adams
Tuesday March 20, 2007

In April 2002 Berkeley’s handsome Central library at the corner of Shattuck Avenue and Kittredge reopened with a splendid party attended by more than 7,700 people. It had been completely renovated and almost doubled in size. Support for this project came from citizens of Berkeley, who passed a bond measure to pay for the building, and from private donations, funneled through the Berkeley Public Library Foundation, which paid for new furniture, equipment, and refurbishing of the original furnishings of this historic structure.  

The Board of Library Trustees hoped to continue this program of expansion and renovation at the other library branches, and in 2000 Berkeley voters approved a bond measure which would have provided city funds to match a state grant for the renovation and enlargement of the West Branch. While Berkeley’s proposal was rated very high, it did not receive any funds in the first, and very competitive, round of grants. Sadly, because of the failure of the state library bond in the 2006 general election (not in Berkeley, but statewide), there are no new funds to do another round of grants, and thus the West Branch project is on indefinite hold. The Board of Library Trustees is turning to other ways of moving forward in order to renovate the Berkeley Public Library branches.  

Near the Ashby BART Station in South Berkeley is the South Branch, now housed in a concrete and redwood building on Martin Luther King Way at Russell Street designed by the late Berkeley architect, Hans Ostwald. Even if you have not checked out a book at this branch, you may know the Tool Lending Library, which is located there and provides a unique service to Berkeley residents. At 5,000 square feet the South Branch is the smallest library in the city, with little room for a teen section and a small and overcrowded children’s reading area. South Branch is not functioning well as a modern library. Its concrete floor and low roofline make it extremely difficult to bring it up to date for modern library and computer needs—there is just no place to install the necessary wiring. Preliminary studies have shown that it would be extremely difficult to expand on the library’s small site without essentially destroying the original building.  

A few blocks southeast of the present South Branch the Ed Roberts Campus will be under construction later this year over part of the parking lot east of the Ashby BART station. The campus will be built by a consortium of many of Berkeley’s nationally known organizations founded by and for the disabled. It will include the Center for Independent Living, whose founder, Ed Roberts, will be memorialized by the name of the new campus building. The design of the ERC took over 10 years, with much work done to make the project respect the tree shaded streets and older houses of the surrounding neighborhood. In addition to the many groups whose focus is on service to the disabled the Campus will include a café open to the public and, at ERC’s invitation, perhaps a new South Branch public library. Locating the library in the ERC not only offers the possibility of a synergy with other ERC partners such as the center for Accessible Technology, but its location next to a BART station offers the possibility of a unique service to commuters. Imagine putting in a book order at a kiosk on your way to BART and picking up the book from the same kiosk on your way home. For the library another of the attractions of the ERC is that there would be enough space to increase the size of the branch. Because the library would be only a small part of a larger structure, building costs would appear to be much less than for a new or renovated stand-alone building. ERC is excited at possibly including the library in its building; the library trustees are excited at a possible solution to the needs of the South Branch; and last, but not least, the Berkeley Public Library Foundation is excited about the prospects of this project as a focus of fundraising, as well as supporting other capital improvement campaigns for the other three branches. But of course there are many issues still to be resolved. The Board of Library Trustees commissioned a study of South Berkeley needs which indicates a lot of positive feelings about such a move, but there are certainly those who want the branch to stay where it is. Others will be very concerned about what will happen to the Tool Library. The preservation community will be understandably concerned about what happens to the existing Ostwald building if the library moves. ERC’s neighbors will want to be sure that including a branch library does not create unanticipated problems of parking and traffic. Residents of South and Southwest Berkeley, both those using the library now and those among communities which use it very little such as the Latino community, need to become more involved.  

In order to examine all the pros and cons, the library trustees established a discussion group to consider how better to serve South Berkeley and whether the Board of Library Trustees should formally initiate a move to the ERC. Two trustees, Terry Powell and Ying Lee, library director Donna Corbeil, Community Relations Librarian Alan Bern, and myself, the foundation’s vice president, have been meeting with ERC staff members and South Berkeley community leaders. Nothing has been decided and no commitments have been made. The discussion group has expanded to include a Library Staff Task Force, which will conduct further research around the various possibilities. The discussion group hopes to hold a public meeting this spring so that those who have not yet been heard from can make their views know. The library trustees are also working with community leaders throughout southwest Berkeley to determine how better to serve this part of the city. In the meantime, South Berkeley residents and library users should not hesitate to contact the library with their ideas and comments. You can write to the Board of Library Trustees c/o the Berkeley Public Library or send an e-mail to the library director at director@berkeleypubliclibrary. org.  


Christopher Adams is the vice president of the Berkeley Public Library Foundation.