Protesters at BOLT meeting. Photo: Tracey Taylor
Supporters of a name change for the South Branch Public Library hold placards at a special Board of Library Trustees meeting on May 7, 2015. Photo: Tracey Taylor
Supporters of a name change for the South Branch Public Library hold placards at a special Board of Library Trustees meeting on May 7, 2015. Photo: Tracey Taylor

The Berkeley Board of Library Trustees (BOLT) Thursday night voted to recommend to the City Council that the South Branch of the library be renamed to include the name of Tarea Hall Pittman (1903-1991), a long-time South Berkeley resident and civil-rights leader.

The 4-1 vote overturned a previous April 22 vote by the board that prevented the library from including Pittman’s name. The decision marked a shift in its renaming policy that applies to all four Berkeley libraries, so petitions for more name changes may be in the city’s future.

Read more on the run-up to Thursday’s meeting.

Public outcry, in the form of a grassroots campaign by South Berkeley neighbors to see the library renamed, led by local resident Charles Austin, appears to have had an impact on the board, which called the special May 7 meeting to reconsider both the general naming policy of its libraries, and whether to include Pittman’s name in the South Branch’s name. Campaigners collected more than 2,000 signatures on a petition in favor of the idea. 

Board of Library Trustees. Photo: Tracey Taylor
The Berkeley Board of Library Trustees on May 7, 2015 with Library Director Jeff Scott at far left: (l to r):. vice-chair Julie Holcomb, Darryl Moore, chair Abigail Franklin, Winston Burton, and Jim Novosel. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Supporters of honoring Pittman reiterated some of the arguments they have made since BOLT voted against a February council proposal to rename the library, at 1901 Russell St., after Pittman. At the time, the board cited its policy which stated that libraries be named according to their geographic location, or neighborhood, unless there were “compelling reasons to add the name of a person to the geographic name of a branch.”

The board did not initially see evidence that Pittman, in spite of her many impressive achievements, had, as its policy also stated, “dedicated a substantial amount of energy, time, resources, leadership and/or volunteer service” to benefit the library.

Library director Jeff Scott told Berkeleyside on Thursday this was partly due to the fact it had not been able to do deep research on Pittman’s relationship with the library.

In order to make it possible to include Pittman’s name alongside the geographic name, the board therefore amended several sections of its policy. It removed the clause about dedication to the library, as well as one that would have obliged the petitioners for a name change to pay the costs associated with a renaming. (The agenda for the meeting as well as the full audio recording is available on the library website.)

Berkeley City Councilman Darryl Moore, the longest serving of the five BOLT members, suggested a sub-committee be formed to work on designing the signage for the new name. The board agreed this was a good idea and suggested it comprise seven members — two trustees, two library staff and three people from the community.

All but Winston Burton voted in favor of the policy changes — Burton said he would have liked to see the board go further and drop the requirement for a geographic name for its branches.

At the April 22 BOLT meeting, Moore had declared that “racism is alive and well in Berkeley” (at the 1:14:19 mark in the meeting’s audio recording). He also encouraged attendees to write to their council members and ask them not to reappoint Julie Holcomb and Jim Novosel, the two trustees who initially voted against the policy changes.

At Thursday’s meeting, however, Moore appeared to be trying to put those inflammatory comments behind him as he summed up the evening’s proceedings by talking about how well the board had worked together in the past, making exceptional efforts while not always seeing eye to eye. “We don’t always agree, but we do all love the library,” he said.

The South Branch of the Berkeley Public Library on its xxx opening day. Photo: Richard Friedman
The South Branch of the Berkeley Public Library on its May 11, 201 3re-opening day. Photo: Richard Friedman

Novosel said the past few weeks had been “a learning experience” for him, and he conceded he had not always “heard the community.” He said those associated with the library, such as the Friends of the Public Library organization, would welcome more involvement from African Americans, and extended an open invitation to those at the meeting to that organization’s annual luncheon in June.

Holcomb said she still favored restricting names to geography, but voted for the changes as she saw them as “a good compromise” and, as she told Berkeleyside after Thursday’s meeting, “in order to move on.” She said the arguments around renaming a library in San Francisco had dragged on for years, and Berkeley needed to avoid that.

During public comments, local resident, and member of the Berkeley Planning Commission, Ben Bartlett spoke of how the board and neighbors had fought hard together against the 2010 lawsuit that delayed the rebuilding of the South Branch library. He said naming the library after an African-American civil-rights leader was significant because, “the birth of the desegregation effort was in South Berkeley. Our name matters, we have a place here, we have value.”

The recommendation, which now goes to the Berkeley City Council for approval, will apply to all four branches of the Berkeley Public Library — currently called Claremont Library, North Branch and West Branch.

Library to reconsider proposal to rename South Branch (05.06.15)
Op-ed: The Berkeley Library should apply larger view in naming its buildings (04.22.15)
Neighbors petition to rename Berkeley’s South Branch Library after civil-rights leader (05.04.15)
Berkeley council on protests, police body cameras, gender-neutral restrooms, more (02.10.15)
New South Branch library to open in Berkeley on Saturday (05.09.13)

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out All the News.

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...