Donna Corbeil gestures toward the new book sorting machine that was installed in the North Branch library in 2012. All the new branches have these machines, which has greatly improved the efficiency of returning books and getting them back on the shelves. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Donna Corbeil, who oversaw the renovation and reconstruction of Berkeley’s four branch libraries, will be stepping down from her post as executive director of the library system in September.

Corbeil has headed the Berkeley Public Library for seven years. In that time, she oversaw the completion of a master plan for the branch libraries, which led to the placement of Measure FF, a $28 million bond,  on the November 2008 ballot. Corbeil then managed the renovation of the North and Claremont branches and construction of two new buildings for the West and South branches, giving Berkeley one of the most modern, energy-efficient, handicapped-accessible and light-filled branch systems in the state. The project was brought in on budget.

“During her tenure, the Library’s budget was stabilized, which was critical,” said City Councilmember Darryl Moore, who also sits on the library’s Board of Trustees. “Donna also implemented a series of operational changes that improved programming, collections and increased staffing.”

Many other improvements have been made under Corbeil’s tenure, particularly in offering more digital resources to patrons. The library recently unveiled a new web page that is more attractive and easier to use.

The library now offers patrons the use of iPads and laptops on site, as well as dozens of computers throughout the system. Library users can download free music and stream movies. Patronage continues to be among the highest in the state. Branch hours have been extended.

Donna Corbeil and Mayor Tom Bates share a moment together at the 2014 Berkeley Public Library Authors’ Dinner. Corbeil and the library staff were honored at the event. Photo: Richard Friedman

“I’ve very much enjoyed my years of service and I will miss my colleagues and the many residents I’ve gotten to know and work with daily,” Corbeil said in a statement. “But this is a great time for the library to make a transition to new leadership, and personally I‘m excited about the future – the library’s and my own!”

Corbeil, 58,  said she plans to travel, spend more time outdoors hiking, and with her family.

Corbeil has also weathered some controversy. A group calling itself Concerned Library Users brought a lawsuit against Berkeley that was settled out of court. The group wanted to renovate, rather than tear down and rebuild, the original South and West branches, both of which were considered architecturally distinctive at some point. The group claimed that the wording of Measure FF had only mentioned renovation, not rebuilding.

Berkeley agreed to pay $100,000 into a fund that could be used to renovate historic structures in west and south Berkeley to settle the lawsuit.

Corbeil came to Berkeley in January 2007 after serving as deputy director for the Solano County Library. Prior to that, she worked at the chief of branches for the San Francisco Public library for seven years, as well as in the Oakland Public Library. Corbeil got her masters of library science in 1991. Her 2103 salary was $187,669

The next director will oversee the library’s new three-year strategic plan, as well as remodeling of some of the interior space of the Central Library.

The Board of Library Trustees (BOLT), appointed by the city council to oversee the library system, has hired Bradbury Associates to conduct a search for a new executive director.

BOLT has approved a recruitment process that is “inclusive of the community and staff, with the goal to identify a candidate that is the best fit for the library’s needs,” according to Abigail Franklin, the president of BOLT.

The BOLT board was criticized for its search selection process in 2007, which led to the selection of Corbeil. Some union members and community activists felt the process was not inclusive enough. BOLT disagreed with that assessment, pointing out that panels made up of community members, library staff, and board members interviewed all the candidates.

The previous director, Jackie Griffin, had come under fire for installing radio frequency identification tags (RFID), which can track objects with radio waves, in books. RFIDs made self-check out at library machines possible, but critics expressed concern that the devices would allow authorities to track the movements of patrons as well. Griffin resigned in June 2006 over union-related strife about RFIDs. Berkeley paid her a settlement of around three months salary, about $35,000, and six months medical care. Griffin later became the director of the Ventura County Library.

Corbeil said one of her priorities had been to improve communication with staff and provide numerous venues for them to give input on ideas and proposed changes. She started sending out a weekly newsletter to staff. She said she also tried to slow down decision making to ensure there was broader input.

“It’s a really thoughtful group here,” said Corbeil. “We try to talk about the consequences of things and how much we can take on at one time. We try to work together and be respectful.”

Free events celebrate Berkeley’s revamped libraries (04.09.14)
New, $7.5m Berkeley West Branch library to open Saturday (12.12.13)
Berkeley Public Library South Branch: The Opening (05.13.2013)
Renovated Claremont library branch opens Saturday (05.03.12)
Berkeley Library stays relevant with shift to digital (02.25.13)
Never let it be said that Berkeley doesn’t love its libraries (04.09.12)
A peek at the renovations at Berkeley’s branch libraries (08.16.11)

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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...