Getting to Know the North Berkeley Library

By Phila Rogers, Special to the Planet
Tuesday April 01, 2008
Phila Rogers

The North Branch of the Berkeley Public Library is always jumping. Day or evening, most of the chairs in the reading rooms are full and all the computers are in use. Patrons sometimes are two deep at the counter where several of the branch’s 16 staff members check out books or answer questions. 

On a nice day, school kids (Berkeley’s biggest middle school is a couple of blocks away) congregate on the lawn or display their skateboard skills on the sidewalk. Streams of young children flow up the ramp or climb the nine steps. In the reading room or at the computers, teens are working on their homework. Or if it’s a Wednesday afternoon, heads may be bent over chess games, a club that was started by Will Marston, the teen librarian. 

Tara Rivera, who comes to Berkeley from Brooklyn, by way of jobs in several other library systems, has been North Branch’s head librarian since 2004. The perception that North Branch is a beehive of activity is supported by the figures. “We’re the busiest branch in the system with the highest circulation of materials and the largest number of reserves,” Tara points out. “We’re serving not only the Berkeley community, but people from Albany, Kensington, and El Cerrito as well.” 

In spite of the bustle, North Branch has a distinctive cozy feeling with its two fireplaces, deep window sills, and carved wood ceiling beams. But what most people notice about the interior is the bright painted rainbow that follows one of the two arches leading into the children’s section.  

“The story is that the legendary children’s librarian a generation ago, Starr Latronica, and her husband came in one weekend and painted that rainbow,” says David Howd, the present children’s librarian. 

Though David may not wear theme clothes like Starr did, in his 16 years as the branch children’s librarian, he is dangerously close to earning the title “legendary” himself.  

He has performed three story times a week for babies, toddlers, and preschool children. He also presides, with staff support, over the ever-popular summer reading program, which some years has more participants than the Central Library. 

“I also enjoy working with the Student Friends Program, a summer volunteer program for middle schoolers,” says David. “They do everything from washing books and shelving to writing thank you notes to those who donated prize gifts for the summer reading program. We often hear how much those notes are appreciated.” 

Tara points out that like all the staff, David is a generalist who also works at the adult desk (though he is seldom far from kid’s books as 43-47 percent of the library circulation is children’s materials). 

North Branch has its share of long-time employees. Anne-Marie Miller, a library specialist, has been with the system for 37 years, with many years on the reference desk at Central Library. At North Branch, along with her reference expertise, she also selects titles for the “Staff Picks” shelf, a feature so popular that she often has to restock the display more than once a day. 

And then there’s Vivian Vigil, a supervising library assistant who has been in the library for over 20 years. “Without Vivian, many of our circulation services would just fall apart,” says Tara. 

“I’m pleased to say that a year ago I helped create North Branch’s first adult book club. We call it the Book-Club-in-a Bag program with the books (and bags) supplied by the Friends of the Berkeley Public library,” she says. “For those with other interests, library specialist Lisa Hesselgesser has a knitting group and library aide Nga Trinh demonstrates the art of origami.” 

North Branch features the well-known quilt show where each year outstanding examples of local talent adorn the walls adding further to the warm ambience of the building. The show will return this spring after a two-year absence. 

“Sometimes, it feels like we’re drowning in our success,” Tara says. “Our little library building was built to accommodate 8,000 volumes and we now have just under 60,000 volumes in our collection.”