Interior of Claremont branch of the Berkeley Public Library.

On Tuesday afternoon, the main reading room of the Claremont branch of the Berkeley Public Library was crowded. All four of the library’s computers were occupied, and patrons clustered at the wooden tables scattered around the building.

During the last few years, about 160,000 people have come annually to the Claremont branch to check out books, surf the web, listen to authors speak, or to attend children’s story time. It’s a reflection of the business of the overall library system: in fiscal 2009-2010, about 1.5 million patrons checked out a record 2 million books, DVDS, CDs, audio books, magazines, tools, and more from the entire public library system. About 800,000 of those visits were at the branch libraries.

For the last two years, ever since the 2008 passage of Measure FF, a $26 million bond, Berkeley has been preparing to renovate its overcrowded, worn, and seismically unsafe branch libraries. On Thursday, the Zoning Adjustments Board is expected to approve a number of permits that will allow the renovation and expansion of the Claremont and North branches.

The ZAB will vote on whether the library can increase the Claremont’s footprint from 60% to 63% of the lot, and whether it can install a large bay window in the rear that will jut out into the required 15-foot rear yard. The board will also vote whether the city can add a 3,850 square foot addition to the North Branch Library.

If the permits are approved, the Claremont and North branches will shut in the spring of 2011. When the Claremont branch reopens in 2012, the original 1923 section of the library will be seismically strengthened. A large window will be installed in building’s historic entryway facing Benvenue Avenue. The 1974 addition (starting to the left of the front door) will be torn down and rebuilt, adding an additional 340 square feet to the branch. There will be new bathrooms, more computers, and a new reference desk.

Sign outside Claremont branch announcing renovation plans.

When the North branch reopens, there will be a new, two-story wing facing Josephine Street.  There will be a large community meeting space with a separate entrance on the ground floor. There will also be an increased number of computers and places to sit upstairs.

Despite the lure of spanking new buildings, not everyone is happy with the proposed renovations.

Peter Warfield, who heads up a San Francisco-based group called the Library Users Association, points out that the Claremont renovation will actually reduce the number of books shelved at the branch. Warfield, who believes the Public Library Board has not been sufficiently transparent in its plans for the branch renovations, said the Claremont will see a 23% decrease in shelving. He calls this a “book de-emphasis”.

“We note that the library’s plan to cut …  shelving …  is equal to eliminating more than 60 bookcases, each one three feet wine and five shelves high,” Warfield wrote to the Berkeley Planning Commission in May.

Berkeley library officials acknowledge that shelf space will be reduced in the Claremont branch but dispute Warfield’s characterization of the situation. The Claremont branch site is constrained, and is the only branch that will see a loss of books, they said.  The overall number of books in the system will not decline.

Part of the issue is that the definition of a library is changing in the 21st century. Patrons now want more than books. They want more computers, more online databases, more movies and CDs, and more meeting space. The proposed renovations reflect those demands, according to Alan Bern, the community relations librarian.

The library has also expanded its relationship with regional libraries with its Link + system. If the Berkeley Public Library does not have a book, it can get one quickly, said Bern.

“We are a small city public library,” said Bern. “In a PhD-heavy town, we are never going to have all the books people want to see. We can get any book anyone needs within two to three days.”

Warfield said that approach amounts to a dumbing down of the library system. “I find it shocking that a library would put out its Link + program as an adequacy,” said Warfield. “A library would want to have as many books as they could. It doesn’t make sense to get books from elsewhere instead of having your own books.”

While the two branch libraries are closed, library officials plan to run a bookmobile around town as a stop-gap measure, said Douglas Smith, the deputy director of the library. When patrons reserve books online, they will be able to pick them up at the bookmobile, which probably will be parked near the closed branch libraries.

When the Claremont and North branches reopen in 2012, the West and South branches will shut. Both those buildings will be torn down and rebuilt.

ZAB will vote Thursday to issue the permits, but the approvals will not go into effect until August 9. That is the date that a new law passed recently by the City Council goes into effect. The law permits the libraries to only obtain permits, rather than variances, for the branch renovations.

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