In the home stretch of researching my latest book, I found myself consulting a 1969 issue of an anthropology publication archived in the Main Branch of the Berkeley Public Library, discovering what the people I had been writing about — the Juwasi (or San) of the Kalahari Desert — really looked like. Before leaving the library, I browsed the reference room. I came upon an atlas of women travelers of the 19th century. Whoopee, I thought. Research done, proofs corrected, I’ll come back to have a serious look. A mere five months later, I found the reference room was stripped. The shelves were nearly as bereft as a medieval monk’s tonsure. What was going on?
I discovered 39,000 books had walked out the back door of the Berkeley Main Branch of the Public Library to be pulped. Rumor had it the pulp found its way into the manufacture of mattresses. I was given access to the database of the 19,000 last copies that had met their fate in the teeth of the shredders. I found a disproportionate number of titles about women and the women’s movement; about Blackness and the history of Black folk, and volumes on economy and politics. Did the Library trustees have an agenda?
Since then I have regularly attended monthly meetings where the public is “invited” to interface with the Board of Library Trustees. My participation in these events was prompted by a lifetime of activism and a sense that with so much public indignation at the theft of our Berkeley commons, the Board of Library Trustees might be persuaded to shift their policies.
Through the exertion of public pressure, Jeff Scott, the Library Director, whose trashing tenure lasted a bare 11 months (so much mayhem in so little time), resigned. Surely things were bound to improve. And yet, nine months later, the same policies remain in force, notably both weeding and collections acquisitions remain in the hands of only two librarians answerable to the Manager of Collections; whereas formerly, librarian specialists had this responsibility each in their particular areas of expertise.
Last Wednesday’s meeting marks a watershed in the breakdown of relations between the trustees , the public and the library employees. Public commentary was restricted to one minute. Following the comment period, two representatives from Local 1021 shared a union notification of no confidence in the current Collections Manager; followed by two representatives from Local 1 who spoke in opposition.
It turns out at issue is a serious labor dispute which finds employee morale at an all-time low. Yet, throughout the proceedings, I marveled at the trustees’ expressions of satisfaction and complacency. Could it be this state of affairs is exactly what they intend? The absence of many librarians for fear of retaliation was duly noted by many speakers. Could it be the trustees agenda is to make working conditions so unpleasant as to encourage older, better paid employees to quit? Recent union negotiations revolving around pay cuts across the board would seem to suggest that is exactly what is going on.
The same trustees who appear indifferent to employee intimidation, display similar indifference to the public. The most recent meeting suffered from lack of any sound amplification. Often speakers’ comments and directions by the Board secretary could not be heard.
Most tellingly, the Board continues to stage these meetings at the Pittman branch, recently visited by the Fire Department which determined only 34 seats could be accommodated. All were occupied Wednesday, with another 34 people left standing for the nearly two-hour meeting duration — some of them senior citizens. Repeatedly, when the public has posed a question to this Board in good faith, it has been met with the assertion that the Board cannot answer questions. If, in fact the Board is gagged, it follows that public is gagged as well, yet many questions continue to be asked of this Board in what appears to be an ongoing and futile exercise by a public making comments that run off the trustees like water off a duck’s back.
If the trustees of the Berkeley Public Library are responsible neither to the employees nor the public, to whom are they responsible?
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