Public Comment

Support Branch Libraries

By Gray Brechin
Thursday October 30, 2008 - 09:47:00 AM

It took the collapse of a heavily trafficked bridge in Minnesota to alert significant numbers of Americans to the price to be paid for neglecting the nation’s physical infrastructure. But despite the equally dramatic descent of our political life in recent decades, few notice the cost of neglecting the nation’s cultural infrastructure that—along with so many of our bridges, dams, and watermains—was largely created by FDR’s New Deal.  

Even before the New Deal, however, as the U.S. economy tanked into the Great Depression in 1931, Berkeley citizens voted to tax themselves to build a new Central Library building in downtown Berkeley. That building still stands in a newly renovated state to serve all Berkeley citizens thanks to another local vote in 1996. Measure S renovated and expanded that Deco gem, now on the National Register of Historic Places. 

That success can be repeated if Berkeley again chooses to fund its branch library buildings. The four branches and the Tool Lending Library have not been renovated since the 1970s, while three of the branches were built before the Second World War. Upgrading all systems in these buildings—including seismic retrofitting and ADA compliance—would allow the branches to fully serve their neighborhoods. Furthermore, the branches would be made more spacious, welcoming, and usable for their patrons. The Berkeley Public Library has just completed a Branch Libraries Facilities Master Plan, though the city has known about its library inadequacies at least since a 1996 study produced similar, though then less alarming, conclusions.  

My neighborhood library is the lovely North Branch, constructed in the Spanish Revival style in 1936 with funding from the New Deal’s Public Works Administration (PWA). Unfortunately, federal funding ran out before the building could be entirely finished. If you wonder why the building seems so cramped, it’s because the projected west wing meant to house a meeting room, reference area, and staff offices was never built. 

North Branch is such a beautiful and well-loved part of its neighborhood that it is the busiest of the four branches—and one of the busiest in the state. It houses a varied collection of books and materials for patrons of all ages and presents hundreds of programs as well as the popular Quilt Show exhibit. In 2001, it was designated City Landmark #243.  

Besides its very severe space limitations, however, North Branch has aged utilities that require upgrading of its mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and telecommunication systems. Moreover, the library needs a fire sprinkler system for the entire building. By completing the wing that was never built, the proposed plan would add approximately 1900 square feet, or 35 percent of the existing building. If Measure FF passes, the library will seek community input on changes to this and other branch libraries.  

Measure FF would restore existing historic features at the North Branch while fixing structural damage from leaks, decay, and pests. Much as I might wish for a state government—and, even more so, a federal government—that would act as the New Deal did to support public education in all of its manifestations, I am not hopeful that this will happen in the foreseeable future. Public libraries, like all public services and independent bookstores, are under siege from the advocates of total privatization. In the main, public libraries no longer receive federal or state funding, depending for their support almost entirely on the communities that they enrich.  

I therefore call on Berkeley voters to maintain their sterling legacy of local support for public libraries in Berkeley by voting Yes on Measure FF to upgrade all of our branch libraries. 


Gray Brechin is the Project Scholar of the California Living New Deal Project.