The entrance to the new South Branch library on MLK Jr. Way at Russell St. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

It was four days to D-Day and the place was hopping.

Painters rolled on a last coat of paint. IT guys fiddled with computer wire while architects strolled around looking for last minute glitches. Carpenters nailed sheets of plywood to a storage area.

In just a few hours, the new South Branch of the Berkeley Public Library was set to open. And, while the bulk of the construction was done, there were numerous small things that hadn’t been completely finished, like the landscaping, shelving all the books, installing all the computers, and the final build-out of the Tool Library.

“We have a lot to do in the next few days but we are feeling good about it,” Donna Corbeil, the city librarian, said on Tuesday. When pressed, though, about whether it would be finished, she took a long pause before answering with a resounding “Yes!”

The centerpiece of the new South Branch is a central atrium filled with natural light. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Corbeil is confident that the library will be ready at 12:30 p.m. Saturday May 11. That’s when city officials, library trustees, neighbors, and community groups will gather for the official opening of the South Branch. After the dignitaries make their speeches and cut the ribbon, the library will be open for business at 1:00 p.m.

And when patrons walk into the doors for the first time, they are likely to be dazzled. While the old South Branch was considered architecturally significant when it was built in the 1961, it had been remodeled numerous times over the years and had become small, dark and cramped.

In contrast, the new South Branch library, at 8,700 square feet, has a soaring atrium with clerestory windows at the top, maple  ceilings, and lots of natural light. That feeling of spaciousness is pervasive throughout the structure. The large community room in one corner of the building has huge windows looking out in two directions: to Russell Street and to Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. The new children’s room has a large window seat where kids and their parents and caregivers can curl up with  a book. And the adult room has one entire wall devoted to mysteries,  comfortable furniture, and a view out onto a Zen garden, a nod to the Japanese-Americans who once populated the neighborhood before being sent to detention camps in World War II. Gina Dominguez’s beautiful mosaics are embedded in numerous walls and on the outside.

Just days before the new South Branch library is set to open, workers put finishing touches on the new building. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

“The old building, by its virtues and shortfalls, gave a lot of inspiration,” said Mati Teiblum, an architect with Field Paoli Architects, the  firm that designed the new library. “The old building was low and squat. We felt we grew and wanted to bring the light in. That thought has been behind a lot of the activities here, bringing in as much daylight” as possible.

Jeri Ewart, the library’s branch manager, has spent 14 years at the South Branch. She can’t wait to show off the new building to the community.

“It’s wonderful,” said Ewart. “It’s fabulous. It’s twice as large which means we have room for twice as many people. I can imagine the schools and the kids will be all over the place. We all love it. There isn’t anybody on staff who doesn’t love it.”

Tools available to check out at the Tool Lending Library. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

In addition to adding space for more books and computers, the Tool Library has been expanded. In the old building, staff kept a number of tools on rolling racks. They would have to roll the racks outside in the morning and back inside at night. Now, there is ample room for all the wrenches, hammers, drills, and ladders. They are also better displayed so people will know what is available.

“It’s really a lot bigger,” said Angel Enters, a tool-lending specialist. “Before, the waiting area was really small. The line would go outside the door because it was so small. Now everybody can be inside, especially when it rains.”

Raylene Ezike, a library specialist, Jeri Ewart, the branch manager, and Uma Paul, a supervising library assistant, put books away on Tuesday in preparation of the South Branch opening. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
IT technicians make final adjustments in the adult reading room. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Children’s librarian Josh Lachman stands in front of the new children’s room. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Children’s librarian Josh Lachman stands in front of the new children’s room. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
A children’s easel and table are just some of the furnishings in the new South Branch library. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
A children’s easel and table are just some of the furnishings in the new South Branch library. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The building, which cost $6.5 million, is energy efficient, said Corbeil, one of the advantages of designing a new structure rather than remodeling an old one. There is a temperature gauge that measures the outside temperature and adjusts the inside temperature accordingly. When it’s hot, windows can be opened to cool the space. When it’s cold, radiant heating in the floor can be turned on to make patrons feel comfortable. There are rooftop solar panels. Some of the wood in the structure was salvaged fron the old building.

The South Branch is the third of Berkeley’s four branch libraries to be be remodeled. The West Branch is currently being built and should be open sometime in the fall, said Corbeil. Berkeley voters approved a $26 million bond measure to refurbish all the libraries. The Berkeley Public Library Foundation raised $3 million to install new furnitures and fixtures in the renovated branches.

Project facts and figures:

  • The new building is 8,700 square feet. That’s 3,300 square feet more than the old building.
  • Cost: $6.5 million. (Construction cost $5 million)
  • The architects are Field Paoli.
  • The contractor is Gonsalves & Stronk
  • The landscape architect is Charles McCulloch

Renovated Claremont library branch opens Saturday [05.03.12]
Never let it be said that Berkeley doesn’t love its libraries [04.09.12]
Gleaming new North Branch Library to open Saturday [04.03.12]
Dates set for reopening of North and Claremont branches [02.14.12]
New addition to North Branch Library almost complete [02.02.12]
Berkeley’s Claremont Library reopening delayed two months [12.07.11]
Berkeley settles contentious library lawsuit [09.06.11]
A peek at the renovations at Berkeley’s branch libraries [08.16.11]
Berkeleyans rally to move forward on library renovations [04.27.11]

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.

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...