It was gray and rainy in Berkeley on Wednesday, but the Central Library provided a welcoming retreat.

On the third floor, along a row of magazines, a handful of people sat in tawny leather chairs, reading books, glancing at computer screens, or talking quietly with friends. They were taking advantage of a newly installed seating arrangement, part of a makeover of the first three floors of the library.

It’s been nine years since the Central Library reopened after a major retrofit and remodel and patron patterns have shifted dramatically during that time. Now more than 1,800 visit the main library each day and they take out about 1.1 million items a year – a 35% increase since 2006.

In 2009, the library administration did a new needs assessment of the building and came up with a plan to reconfigure the library’s first three floors. They hope the upgrades, which are almost completed, will make the library not only more comfortable, but more accessible.

Douglas Smith

“We’re really happy with the changes so far,” said Deputy Director Douglas Smith, who planned and oversaw the changes. “We’ve been able to observe the newly created areas at capacity and we’ve had a lot of positive feedback from users as well.”

The changes cost about $150,000 and were paid for out of private donations, said Smith. The library tried to reuse materials whenever possible. It dismantled an information desk on the third floor and reused the material for another staff desk on the first floor, for example, he said.

The change is evidently immediately as you walk in the front door on Kittredge. The huge information desk is gone. In its place are maple bookshelves carrying the latest fiction and non-fiction titles as well as DVDs. The bookshelves are on wheels and can be rolled away, creating a large space for events.

“Even though the information desk was front and center, people just breezed by,” said Smith.

Rolling bookshelves near library entrance

The information desk and check out counter are now in the corner. There is a larger patron reserve shelf, which Smith said will get even more use once the Claremont and North Branch close in mid-March for remodeling.

Some of the other changes include:

  • All of the 40 computers have been consolidated onto the second floor. Partitions have been erected around some of the computers to enhance privacy.
  • The Friends of the Library bookshelves have been consolidated into the first floor store, opening up a nook by the windows on the second floor. The library brought in some historic rounds tables which give people a place to sit while they wait for the computer.
  • All the periodicals and newspapers have been moved to the third floor. Comfortable leather chairs are now located nearby, bringing the number of seats in the library from 195 to 229. Without computers on the third floor, the reading area has evolved into a quiet zone, said Smith.
  • The travel, history, and biography books, once split between two floors, have been consolidated in the second floor Historic Reading Room.
  • The International Language Collection, which includes books, magazines, and DVDs in Spanish, Chinese, Russian, French, Japanese, Arabic, and Urdu are also in the Historic Reading Room. Shelf space for the collection has increased 64%, from 774 linear feet to 1,269 linear feet.
  • The concrete floor pavers have been cleaned and sealed, which dramatically improved their appearance. The concrete floor on the third floor will be painted soon.
There are 40 computers on the second floor
New tables and chairs in third floor nook

Frances Dinkelspiel

Frances Dinkelspiel (co-founder) is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California,...

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  1. Bill…the library needs your support ….and everyone’s ….at a Planning Commission meeting on March 2nd in Old City Hall. They will be discussing the plans to build new libraries for the neighborhoods in south and west Berkeley, the neighborhoods who need them the most. A lawsuit has been filed to prevent that from happening. Please come and let the city know you support new libraries in the neighborhoods that have asked for new, not renovated, libraries. Here’s the notice:

    Regular Planning Commission Meeting – Boards/Commissions
    When: 3/2 – 3/2
    Time: 7:00 PM – 10:00 PM
    Where: Old City Hall – 2147 MLK

  2. Our libraries are a jewel to be treasured. Berkeley voters should be commended for actually wanting to have a first class library system AND be willing to pay for it. The reconstruction of the Claremont and North branches is on track and the West and South (before that old concrete block structure falls apart in a quake) branch renovations will complete this wonderful renovation of our libraries.

  3. The main library is one of the only reasons I go to downtown Berkeley every week. There are fewer and fewer reasons to go downtown. But the library is an essential trip. My life would be a lot poorer without the recorded music collection.

    I also sometimes shop after the library visit. I suspect many other library patrons do the same.

  4. I love libraries. I think public libraries are one of the best shared resources we give ourselves with our shared wealth (aka taxes). And I love the downtown Berkeley library.

    I am in the downtown library at least once a week so of course I have noticed the changes. Like the story above notes, I always ‘just breezed by’ that information desk. It is great to see that space used in the new ways. It seems like an obvious, no-brainer to put the DVD’s and the popular ‘new’ books near the front door, but I guess it wasn’t so obvious. The new set up, with the rolling shelves to make the space flexible is really great. Now it is harder for me to find DVD’s to watch on the spur of the moment but I am happy that more library patrons are using the movies, I really am. And I can go online and reserve anything the library has that I might want, wait my turn, and then, presto, just run in and pick it up.

    The computers at the downtown library are heavily used, of course. I don’t use the library computers because I have my own and I have my own broadband connection but I am glad that the resource of library computers and internet is there for folks who have no other internet options.

    I love all public libraries. I love the recent changes at the downtown library. Libraries rock and our local libraries really do.

    I do have one longing that will remain unfulfilled. The downtown Berkeley library was such a gorgeous building when it was first designed. I understand some of the needs for how it was reconfigured, to control how people come and go, to maintain security of the collections, I suppose . . . but that building really should be entered through the original grand entrance, reminding us that when we entered the library, we were entering a temple of human culture and knowledge. The new layout serves needs ‘better’ but humans have a need for pomp and ritual and circumstance. I don’t think all of life should be stripped down to its most perfunctory essence. But my ideas are romantic and dreamy and the new design at the downtown library works well.

    Still, once in awhile, I go in and try to enjoy the old entry. I wish they would turn that space into a better sitting room. If people can’t enter the library through its original, temple-like entry, I wish people were more warmly invited to ‘be’ in that space. It is not very well used: the entry-space could use a rethink, I think.

    But, overall, I love the changes.

  5. Now if only I could use the restrooms when the need arises. Whenever I’ve gone into ANY of the mens’ rooms there, there is without fail a homeless person camped out in the stall of every one of them.

  6. The Berkeley Public Library is an excellent community resource.
    Well stocked, well staffed, and a pleasure to visit.

  7. Thanks to the Library for some significant changes. The Berkeley Public Library system, Central plus the four branches, distributed more than 2 million items last year. A record! The Library is, contrary to urban rumor, becoming more, not less, relevant in people’s lives.