The Public Library

Growing up in the suburban Bay Area, I spent a fair amount of time traveling around in cars when I was young. I suppose it was a sign of things to come that I didn’t really enjoy being in the car even back then, and instead have fond memories of the walking and biking. From an early age, we walked to the public library, which was about 15 minutes away. Not only did it establish a pattern of walking for me, but naturally also a love of books and reading. Because of that experience, I always think of the library as a good possible walk destination.

Here in Berkeley, I am just a 5 minute walk from one of the branches. Like many public libraries, Berkeley’s system is set up so that you can reserve books and other items from your home computer and have them sent to the branch of your choice. This is pretty convenient for someone like me, who checks out lots of books — I walk over to the library once or twice a week to pick up and drop off books. A couple of months ago, when I was picking up books, I noticed a sign posted on the door that the library would be closed for several weeks for renovations. I realized how much of a routine I had gotten into by my initial reaction of being upset at the closure. But then I decided that this was a great opportunity to experience the other library branches, which I have walked past on many of my walks.

The Berkeley Public Library is composed of a main downtown branch and four neighborhood branches: South, North, West, and Claremont. They are pretty well spread out around town, so that many people are near one of the branches. Some households in the southwest corner of Berkeley are a bit of a walk from either the South or West branches, and the nearest branch for Berkeley hills residents is the North branch down the hill. Having a library within close walking distance seems pretty important to me, especially if you need to carry a large stack of books home, or if you check out large or heavy books. It’s also nice if you tend to check out movies on a regular basis, which need to be returned in a week.

The libraries are all a bit different architecture-wise. The main branch is an Art Moderne building designed by Berkeley architect James Placheck. Also of interest architecturally are the North branch, a California Spanish style building (also by Placheck), and the Claremont branch, which is a Tudor style building. Each of the branch’s collections varies a bit, with the central library, of course, having the most materials and services. Of particular interest at the central library is the Berkeley History Room, which has all sorts of documents and materials for researching the history of the city. The West and South branches have collections of language (Spanish, Chinese, Japanese) materials, and the West also is the site of the library’s literacy program. The main library has a small Friends of the Library bookstore, and the branch libraries have small shelves of books for sale. But there is also a larger Friends bookstore hidden away near Telegraph Avenue in the Sather Gate center — definitely a place you would miss unless you were on foot or knew about it already.

Next door to the South Branch is the very cool Tool Lending Library, which has free tools for check-out by Berkeley residents and property owners. This is an excellent resource for projects where you will need a tool that you would probably never use again in the future. Tools cost a fair amount of money, and take up space, so this is very handy for many residents. I am not sure if the concept of the tool lending library originated in Berkeley, but it looks like it may have been one of the first if not the original (started in 1979). Other Bay Area tool lending libraries are offered by the Oakland Public Library (Temescal) and in San Francisco.

Many of my walks for this project have been at times when the libraries aren’t open, so I haven’t always had the opportunity to stop in and browse the books for awhile. However, I plan to make a point of taking more walks in the future that include stops at the library when it is open. This week, I stopped into the North branch in the evening, which was a very pleasant experience. This branch is small but cozy, and it has a very community-oriented feel to it. Especially nice was a magazine exchange, where residents can drop off unwanted magazines from the past year; I picked up some copies of magazines that I like to read once in awhile.

Stay tuned for another post about the other libraries in Berkeley beyond the public library!

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