The Folks Up Front at the Berkeley Public Library

By Phila Rogers, Special to the Planet
Thursday February 11, 2010 - 09:57:00 AM

When you first walk into the Central Library, the Information Desk is directly in front of you. Unless you know where you’re going, it’s a helpful and welcoming place to visit. 

On this day Teresa Albro is on the desk, spending an hour talking to the public in person and on the phone, fielding questions. Most often Teresa works on the fifth floor in the Art and Music room. Like most library employees, she takes her turn at the Information Desk. “I enjoy the chance to meet the library patrons—finding out what brings them to the library,” she says. “People have all kinds of questions,” Teresa continues, “Sometimes it’s something as simple ‘Where are the restrooms?’ or ‘Where do I go to apply for a job?”’ But often it’s a question that may require a little digging. “We try to give them a substantive answer or direct them to a resource where they might find an answer,” she adds, indicating the fat information binder she calls “the bible.” In the branch libraries, the Information Desk often also functions as the reference desk.  

Closer to the entrance, you’ll usually see one of the library’s security officers. It might be Patrice Roland who has been with the library for many years. For many people, the presence of a security officer assures them that the library is a safe place to be. 

To the left of the Information Desk is one of the busiest parts of the library—the Checkout Desk. At any one time, several people work behind the desk checking out library materials, issuing library cards or, in a quieter moment, putting books on the hold shelves next to the several self-checkout machines. The old days of your book being stamped with a due date is now replaced with a printed slip giving you the due date along with title, author and other information. Of course you can still stamp your own book (or other material). In the branch libraries during library hours, the Checkout desk is the Check-in Desk. 

This morning, Rudy Tapia is on the desk. Rudy is no stranger to libraries having started with the Oakland Public Library as a volunteer at the age of 10. “At the Central Library we’re moved around every hour or so,” he says. “Sometimes I’m upstairs at the Paging Desk, where I bring out requested materials from the storage area, or I’m in a main floor room collecting returned books that are dropped into the outside and inside slots,” he adds.  

Jay Dickinson manages the Circulation Department, which includes staffing the Information Desk. Before coming to the Berkeley Library three years ago, Jay oversaw the merger of the San Jose State University library with the San Jose Public Library, followed by a shorter stint at San Francisco State University’s reserve book room. “I wanted to come to Berkeley,” he said, adding that his wife works as a cataloger at the UC Berkeley library. “I love the urban intensity, the variety of people and the high degree of public involvement, all of which are reflected here in the library,” he adds 

Although the library plays a number of roles in the community, borrowing books and other library materials is what most people think of the library’s primary function. 

“Jay keeps track of a wide range of statistical information relating to the circulation of library materials” says deputy-director Doug Smith who looks forward to his time on the information desk as his way of measuring the public pulse.  

“Our circulation has increased 8 percent each year recently, probably because of the recession,” Jay says. “Before the end of the fiscal year in June, we expect to hit two million library items checked out. We won’t know just who that patron will be, but we plan on having some kind of celebration,” Jay says with obvious relish.  

Jay keeps tabs on ebbs and flows of cumulative checkouts over the course of the year including the percentage of people who use the self-check machines (more children and teens). He also compares the circulation among the various collections and library locations. “This so-called turnover rate helps determine our budget and where to develop our collections,” he adds. 

Both Doug and Jay stress that in the library’s monitoring of the collection use, they adhere to a strict privacy policy which protects the privacy of all patron information. “Our staff has received training on the procedures concerning patron privacy, and they take it very seriously,” Jay emphasizes. 

“Once an item is returned, a patron’s record no longer reflects that they once circulated it,” says Jay. “The single exception to that rule would be if the patron accrued and paid late fees on the item. Paid fine information is saved for one year for bookkeeping reasons, and of course unpaid fines remain on the books longer,” he says. 

Soon, when you enter the Central Library, you’ll see certain changes. Anticipating a larger volume of activity than usual once the branch library remodeling begins, the configuration of the Information Desk and the Check-out Desk will be redesigned to accommodate more people.