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, 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...