On a typical foggy Friday morning, just before 10 a.m., mothers and a few grandmothers wheel their toddlers to the front of the West Branch Library, waiting for the doors of the library to open admitting them to the toddler story hour. Once inside, strollers are deposited along the short hallway into the community meeting room.
The Children’s Librarian, Nora Hale, is perched on a low seat ready to orchestrate the hour with stories, games, and songs that appeal to the short attention spans of an audience aged six months to 36 months. Other patrons descend on the computers or choose one of the daily newspapers from the racks.
The West Branch Library, located a half block above San Pablo Avenue at 1125 University Ave., is Berkeley’s oldest branch library, the original building being built on that site in 1923. The library has been closed for refurbishing for the past couple months and will reopen this Friday with a celebration from 5-7 p.m.
Warren Middleton, who first started working for the Berkeley Public Library’s West Branch 40 years ago, checks out a stack of books while fielding questions. When Middleton first worked at the library, it was in the original building before the extensive remodeling in 1974.
“A friend of mine who was working there was going into the Army and asked me if I would like to apply for his job,” says Middleton. “He introduced me to the branch librarian and she hired me as a library page. A year later I transferred to central branch, where I stayed until I was drafted into the Army in 1968. Coming back to the library two years later, I worked at different branches until 1995 when I went back to West Branch. I’ve enjoyed working here, and I still do.”
Middleton, now a supervising library assistant, hires the pages (now called library aides) in the same kinds of jobs he had when he started his long tenure at the Berkeley Public Library. “Over the years, I’ve served under seven library directors,” he notes.
Marge Sussman, the branch manager at West Branch, arrived on her bike at 9 a.m. and works in her small office, attending to often pleasurable chores like reviewing and ordering books. Once the library opens, she’s apt to be at the Information Desk answering the phone and assisting patrons.
Sussman’s association with the Berkeley Public Library began in 1989 as the children’s librarian at South Branch. Two years later she transferred to West Branch in the same position. “I did lots of pre-school programs like the Baby Bounce, Toddler Tales, and family story times along with visiting the local public schools to read stories in the younger grades and talk about books in the older grades,” she says.
“But three years ago I became the permanent branch manager here at West Branch. Now my job is to consider the needs of all our patrons. I love getting to know the community in this way. I’ve seen lots of children grow up at West Branch, and a few have even brought their own children in to use the library,” says Sussman.
The library staff at West Branch includes two full-time librarians (Sussman and Hale, the Children’s Librarian), Middleton and several part-time employees
Each of Berkeley’s four branch libraries has its own distinct character representing, in part, the neighborhoods in which it is located. The adult literacy program, Berkeley Reads, is located at West Branch. During the day, participants in the program often come into the library, some to meet their volunteer tutors, others to use the special computers equipped with educational software that helps them with their reading and writing skills.
The West Branch, in a neighborhood of shops, motels and restaurants on a heavily traveled street, feels like a refuge. Inside, it has a certain welcoming neighborhood coziness like a friendly pub— except with books instead of ale.
Other patrons come from the Berkeley Adult School, which opened recently several blocks away on Virginia Street.
Later in the day, teens come to visit their own alcove. Latino and Asian families have corners with round oak tables well-supplied with Asian and Spanish-language magazines and books. Children are served by a large area with pint-sized furnishings, a story-well surrounded by carpeted sitting stairs and shelves full of books for all ages.
West Branch: In the Beginning
When the Ocean View community in West Berkeley’s industrial district decided in 1895 that they wanted a branch library, a building at 845 University Ave. was rented for $15 a month. A table, a few kitchen chairs, a hat rack, and two maps on the wall made up the furnishings—plus a few books. The room was heated with a small, coal-burning iron stove.
In 1923, an elegant new building, designed by William K. Bartges, was built on the present site at 1125 University Ave., just above San Pablo Avenue, then the only highway into town. Visitors were welcomed by an arch announcing “BERKELEY.” One hand, like an arrow, pointed west to the Manufacturing District, another toward the hills to the University of California. Another sign indicated the direction to the San Francisco ferry. Never a structure of beauty, the arch ended up as scrap metal during World War II.
The new library, embellishing Berkeley’s gateway, was designed in the Classical Revival style with a Roman arch at the entrance. The small building was filled with light from windows on all sides and a large central skylight.
In response to the need for more space, and in keeping with the then-current preference for the “modern” style, the building was extensively remodeled in 1974. It was given a concrete ramp, a side entrance and decorated with two murals. Several large redwood trees remain in the back, part of what once appeared to have been a garden.
Once inside the present library, you can find the original entrance in the center of the building, now flanked by magazine racks. The arched window above the doorway still admits light from over the newer stucco wall fronting the street.
Though the era of Carnegie-funded libraries had recently ended, the original West Branch Library was designed in the “Carnegie-style” where you mounted a staircase from the street, entered through elegant doors, to approach that altar to knowledge—the circulation desk.