Public Comment

The Free Library Tree

By Winston Burton
Thursday October 02, 2008 - 09:40:00 AM

Someone recently wrote a letter to the Daily Planet about free libraries not being free. And that may technically be true. But for the thousands of seniors, youth, immigrants and low income people that go to Berkeley branch libraries every day they are free. There’s no ticket price or entrance fee required to check out a book and read. In addition to books, movies and music, you can even take out tools to plant a garden or fix your home or do whatever project you need at no cost. The only charge is a fine for not bringing the items back in a timely fashion. This is meant to encourage each of us to be responsible members of the community, because often there is a long waiting list of other folks who want to share in the free resources provided by our local branch libraries.  

Someone also wrote about not liking any new taxes. Me either! I don’t like taxes or crosstown traffic, but they’re unavoidable. A lot of us don’t like paying taxes because we resent the way our dollars are spent or wasted. Ill-advised wars, bridges to nowhere, pet projects, corrupt politicians and corporate executives to list a few. I view supporting libraries differently. As a Berkeley homeowner, voting to support the branch libraries may be one of the few opportunities I have to decide where my tax dollars do go. With sports programs, music and other needed projects in our community being cut or eliminated, I’m glad to dedicate the small amount proposed by Measure FF, that for many equates to as little as buying one new book, to support libraries in making them safe, accessible and have more resources for the next 30 years!  

Berkeley branch libraries have neighbor input and community commitment. Quite often they reflect the cultures of people they serve and focus on programs that neighbors need and want. They provide a safe place to meet, learn and share. Some provide special programs and opportunities for non-English speakers, as well as tutors, after-school and homework programs for youth and teens.  

My support for branch libraries and local communities goes way back. One of my first jobs as a teenager was at a neighborhood branch library in West Philadelphia, and my mother retired after 35 years of dedicated service as an employee of the Free Library of Philadelphia. She encouraged me, my family and the rest of our neighbors to have a stake in what happened at our local branch. Philly had some of the greatest Jazz musician that ever lived, like John Coltrane, Grover Washington, and Lee Morgan, to name a few, who played at nightclubs on 52nd Street (“The Strip”), but young people had never heard them. Our neighborhood library was on The Strip too. So with my mother’s and other music lovers’ help we started a series of jazz shows at the library on Sunday afternoon when it was normally closed. We recruited live bands and musicians that encouraged the kids to make noise and play instruments and it transformed the building into a place of energy and joy. These are the kinds of activities that are possible in our local neighborhoods if we care to get involved. Our libraries are not just about books and learning, they are a part of our community. 

One Sunday after leaving the Sunday Library Jazz Show we noticed that my friend’s bike was stolen even though it was chained to a tree. The huge, newly planted 25 foot sycamore in front of the building was cut down by some thief while we were inside devoting our time and our energy to the kids. And then quite suddenly my mother sent me home to get a saw. We cut off the top seven feet of the fallen tree and took it home—it was free! After that she never bought a Christmas tree again. We put it in the living room and she added different ornaments as the seasons changed. When people saw the decorated tree they often asked, “What’s the occasion,” and she said, “No occasion, it’s the Free Library Tree. It stays up all year long!”  

Winston Burton is a co-chair for the Neighbors For Branch Libraries Campaign Committee.