Press Releases

A House of Books in the Elmwood

By Phila Rogers Special to the Planet
Wednesday February 25, 2009 - 08:00:00 PM
The Claremont Branch is the largest of the Berkeley Public Library branches.
Phila Rogers
The Claremont Branch is the largest of the Berkeley Public Library branches.

Immediately off busy Ashby Avenue on Benvenue Avenue in the Elmwood district you enter an leafy enclave of Arts and Crafts houses. The Claremont Branch Library, built in 1924 and designed in the same scale and character as the surrounding homes, fits right in. 

The Claremont Branch is the second busiest branch in Berkeley with the largest branch collection and biggest building. 

Karen Joseph-Smith, the branch manager, says: “This is very much a family library. We often see mothers, fathers, and grandparents visiting the library as part of a family outing,” she says. “Claremont Branch is a vital part of the Elmwood community. It’s a place to read a newspaper or magazine, access the Internet, check out a stack of DVDs for a week’s worth of entertainment, pick up an audio book to play on a long trip, to listen to a story, or even watch a puppet show.” (It’s also a short block away from an excellent coffee house and a variety of restaurants). 

Patrons and staff have a special affection for the branch. No wonder. The charming building, with its half-timbered and brick exterior, is sheltered by London plane trees in front and tall redwoods behind. Inside, the library features two alcoves with fireplaces that offer a homey, cozy ambiance, high ceilings throughout, window seats and more alcoves in the children’s area, and lots of fine woodwork.  

“What makes our collection stand apart is the large audio book section which includes a significant number of academic “great courses,” a large DVD section which focuses on “foreign films,” and an extensive travel section,” says Karen. 

The branch also sponsors a non-fiction reading group with a different title read and discussed each month. (The books are available at the circulation desk).  

Karen Joseph-Smith, like most librarians, traces her love of books and libraries back to her childhood and her family of library users. “My grandparents came to California from Louisiana in the 1920 because it offered them a better life—access to good schools and housing, parks, libraries, and they didn’t have to sit in the back of the bus to get to any of these places! Though she had only eight years of schooling, my grandmother read voraciously and was a regular used of the old Green Library in Oakland,” she recalls. 

“Growing up in Oakland, my mother took me each week to the library where she picked out her books while I went to the childrens’ room where I checked out my own stack of books. Though it may sound like a cliché, books opened my eyes to new worlds I could never have imagined growing up in east Oakland,” she says. 

Pursuing her interest in other cultures, Karen did her undergraduate work at Pomona College in anthropology, then graduated from USC library school in 1978. After working at several local libraries she found her home at the Berkeley Public Library in 1991 and has been the Claremont branch manager since 1995. 

Every branch seems to have its ‘old-timer.’ At Claremont Branch it’s Karin Soe-Lai, the supervising library assistant who’s in charge of circulation. She started with the library as a teenager more than 30 years ago. 

Dawn Swanson, the children’s librarian, holds sway over the spacious Childrens’ room which was part of the branch’s major expansion in 1976. On a recent rainy Saturday morning the room was jumping with young children accompanied by many dads. 

One young boy told Dawn that: “I want a book on bombs.” Being unflappable is one of the requirements for being a childrens’ librarian. Dawn determined that he was also interested in submarines and the young patron left pleased with several illustrated books on the subject.  

“We have a variety of programs for toddlers up to through elementary schoolers,” says Dawn. Classes with their teachers visit and we have a number of home-schooling families. The Friends of the Berkeley Public Library sponsors special events like our puppet shows which attract a big crowd,” she adds. 

With the Oakland Public Libraries cutting back on their hours, Claremont branch expects to become even busier. 

Fitting Right In  

The Claremont branch, like the other three branches in the Berkeley Public Library system, occupied several locations before finding a permanent home. Claremont branch first opened its doors in 1909 in the old Emerson School (Piedmont and Garber) and later occupied two rented stores in the neighborhood before moving into its home at 2940 Benvenue on the corner of Ashby Avenue, a block south of College Avenue in 1924. 

The 1920s were a heyday for library construction thanks to Carnegie grants, which built 142 libraries in California. The commission for designing the Central Library and the Claremont, South, and North branches all went to James W. Plachek. Each library was designed in a distinctive style. 

The Claremont branch, designed in the so-called English Gothic domestic style, looks at home in to its neighborhood. The exterior has a base of bricks laid in diamond bond pattern. The half timber wood is held together with wood pegs in the old style. The roof is a copy of an old English slate roof. Carrying out the English theme, the hand-carved letters above one of the fireplaces, quotes Shakespeare: “My Books shall be My Company.” 

The 3,710-square-foot building cost $24,000 and originally housed 6,000 books. Libraries were very different places in those days: Books, all recorded on index cards, made up the libraries circulation.  

By the 1970s, the small building could no longer accommodate the increasing number of patrons and the growing book collection. Expansion to the south seemed like the only feasible solution, but that required the removal of a one-story bungalow. Because of the recently-passed Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance a house in sound condition could not be demolished. The only solution was to move.  

The ad in the SF Chronicle tells the story: “City of Berkeley authorizes the sale of a one-story three-bedroom, one-bath, brown shingled residence, excellent condition for $1. House must be moved by Feb. 15, 1975. City will help pay cost.” For months there were no takers until Dr. Betram Lubin, and his wife Barbara, who lived near by made an offer that was accepted.  

The new addition designed by Ratcliff Architects, doubled the original space allowing for a new Childrens’ Room, a multipurpose area, and increased circulation and work areas. 

More recently, in 2000, the branch was closed for three months to allow for a renovation that provide improved access for the disabled.