Meeting Draws South Branch Library Supporters

By Judith Scherr
Friday July 27, 2007

A community meeting which officials said they called Tuesday evening to assess general library needs was part Berkeley Library lovefest, part rally to save the South Berkeley Branch Library. 

While notices of the community meeting at the Over 60s Health Clinic on Sacramento Street and Alcatraz Avenue, posted around town and on the city website, called for people to come to the meeting to “tell us what you want from your Berkeley Public Library,” other notices posted by a group organizing to Save the South Berkeley Branch Library asked for supporters to turn out to the meeting. 

There has been a plan afoot, which the Library Board of Trustees has been discussing for more than a year, to move the small South Berkeley library at Martin Luther King Jr., Way and Russell Street a few blocks southeast to the planned Ed Roberts Campus, slated to house mostly non-profit organizations serving disabled people.  

The project, to be located where the Ashby BART Station east parking lot is now, has yet to raise the funds it needs to break ground. 

The first community meeting to introduce the possible library move was held last month at St. Paul’s AME Church, while there is support for the proposal, opposition has also begun to congeal.  

The trustees have commissioned architectural drawings of the project and, while speaking favorably of it, they are quick to say they have made no decision about the move. 

The architects will speak about the project at a public meeting at 7 p.m. August 1 at the Central Library third-floor meeting room. At the same meeting there will be interviews for a new trustee and selection of the trustee by the board.  

When the 30 or so people attending the Tuesday evening meeting were asked what they like about the library, people did not hesitate to speak up: “It’s rare that I’m looking for a book I can’t find in the library,” said one person.  

“I go to the West Branch and I like it because they’ll send me a book from another branch,” said another. 

People said they like the reference staff, the fact that they can get newspapers online or go to the Central Library to look at paper copies, the children’s programs, the way homeless people visiting the library are treated with respect and much more. 

The discussion turned to the possible move of the South Berkeley branch.  

“I’d like to know why you want to relocate it,” said one person, “It’s right next to a park and in a residential setting.”  

While South Branch Supervisor Jeri Ewart underscored how small the library is, one person responded that is a plus: “You don’t need a map to move around in it,” she said. 

A woman identifying herself as a teacher at the adult school said her students told her they feel more comfortable in the small setting. “They feel intimidated in the Central Library,” she said. 

Yolanda Huang, a Parks and Recreation Commission member, said the South Branch Library is on a trajectory for kids walking down from Willard Middle School, up from Longfellow School and is next to a recreation center. “It’s part of their world,” she said, suggesting that the recreation center ought to be better integrated with the library. 

“The South Branch is a safe place for kids in the afternoon,” Huang said.  

Elaine Green, a candidate for the Board of Trustees, said the proposed site south of Ashby and east of Adeline poses safety concerns for children crossing the wide streets.  

A member of the group is forming to keep the South Branch where it is; Green said they have collected signatures of 300 people who oppose the move. 

Winston Burton suggested spending funds to improve South Branch rather than moving it, using the meeting room for homework help, showing films and hosting art and music programs. “It can become so much more than a place to read books,” he said. 

One person suggested moving the adult books to a new site at the Ed Roberts Campus and leaving the children’s and youth component where it is, and another said the tool library should move, leaving space for expansion of the rest of the library. 

Library Trustee Terry Powell pointed out some of the negatives of the present South Branch site. “We know that the South Branch is very crowded,” she said, noting that the space limits the number of books there.  

“It has limited accessibility [for disabled people],” and a limited number of computers, she said, underscoring, however, “We have made no decision, no commitment.” 

But Huang was not convinced that South Branch versus Ed Roberts was the correct discussion to be having. “The needs of the South Branch need to be unhinged from Ed Roberts” and considered in their own right, she said.