Getting to Know the Berkeley Public Library’s South Branch

By Phila Rogers, Special to the Planet
Thursday August 21, 2008 - 11:07:00 AM

In 1901, the South Branch of the Berkeley Public Library opened for business in a store front on the 3200 block of Adeline Street. The South Berkeley district was then known as Lorin. 

The present South Branch is located in a mid-20th-century building on the corner of Russell Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, sharing the corner building with the Tool Lending Library.  

Jeri Ewart, who has been the branch manager for almost 10 years, describes the branch patrons as part of a diverse community. “We provide materials to the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural residents of South Berkeley, including children, seniors, college-aged students, working folks, the unemployed, and all our neighbors, including the Thai monks next door,” she says. 

The South Branch is distinctive in many ways. “We have a large collection of Chinese literature and DVDs, and we subscribe to two Chinese newspapers and several Chinese language magazines,” Jeri says. “Patrons come from as far away as Pittsburg, Pleasanton, and San Francisco to utilize our Chinese Collection,” she adds. 

In 2002 the branches were given $5,000 to develop their own unique video and DVD collections. “In addition to the Hollywood-type films, I wanted to emphasize BBC and PBS series. I knew I was taking something of a risk, but they have proved to be extremely popular throughout the system,” Jeri says. 

As the South Branch manager, Jeri also supervises the enormously active Tool Lending Library. Working with the staff, she selects the books and DVDs that support the TLL’s home repair and home gardening resources. 

Jeri Ewart grew up in Harlem, New York, around the corner from the historic Schomberg Library. “It was both a library and a museum,” she recalls. “It contained Arturo Schomberg’s collection of African and ‘Negro’ books and artifacts which, upon his death, he donated to the Harlem Branch of the New York Public Library. This historic library had a great impact on my life and perhaps, without realizing it at the time, planted the idea of my future career,” she adds.  

After earning a degree in English literature at the City College of New York, Jeri was recruited by the Columbia University School of Library Science. “They were interested in increasing their minority enrollment and I became one of the 16 students offered a full scholarship.” says Jeri. “It was the greatest experience of my life,” she recalls. 

Later on a trip to California, Jeri fell in love with the Bay Area and decided to make the move, living first in San Francisco and then in Berkeley. “I had plenty of work as an on-call librarian including working with Diane Davenport in the reference department of the ‘old’ Central Library,” she says. 

But when she had the chance to fill in at the South Branch as branch manager she discovered that she liked it. “I love the intimacy, the chance to get to know individual patrons, families, and members of the community in a more personal way,” Jeri says. 

In addition to Jeri, there are two other full-time employees. Uma Paul is the supervising library assistant responsible for the five part-time aides and assistants. Josh Lachman is the popular children’s librarian. 

Josh visits schools, introduces children to the library resources and suggests library-oriented class projects when they visit the branch with their teachers. In the summer, he is also busy with the summer reading program. Every Tuesday morning he conducts the “baby bounce” and toddler programs. 

Recently, a parent of one of the young children who loves listening to Josh read books—including one about a street sweeper—told him about a recent visit to Rome. They were standing in front of that glorious antiquity, the Coliseum, hoping to impress their child when spotting a city employee, he shouted “Look, ‘The Mighty Street Sweeper!”’  

When the “new” South Branch designed by the Berkeley architect John Hans Ostwald was built in 1961, it won two national awards for design. But over the years the library has become crowded and the cinderblock, cement floor design has proved inflexible. There is barely room for seven public computers and there are only 18 seats for readers.  

The challenge for the future may be how to preserve certain aspects of the much-admired mid-century building while providing adequate space and facilities for a vibrant branch library. 



The Little Church on the Corner 

The 1920s were the heyday for library construction in Berkeley, thanks to the special library building tax which was passed in 1921. The old Central Library building was replaced and three of the four branches were provided with new buildings. 

South Branch was relocated in 1927 to a new building designed by James W. Plachek at 1839 Woolsey Street on the corner of Grove (now Martin Luther King Jr. Way). The small stucco building has tile roof trim, helix columns at the entrance, and decorative leaded-glass windows in the front that an elderly patron remembers as a reading alcove. At the opposite end of the room was a fireplace—a common feature especially in the branch libraries which enhanced the welcoming quality. 

When the library was no longer big enough, attempts were made to move it up the street to a larger lot on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Russell Street. But the little building objected to being dislodged and was in danger of falling apart, so a new modern structure was built on the new lot. 

The little building remains on its corner to this day, occupied and well-maintained by the Ebenezer Baptist Church.