Warren Maes-Maninger and Will Curran, both 9th-grade students at Berkeley High, use the new commons area to study in. Photo: Frances DinkelspielWalk into the first floor of the Central Branch of the Berkeley Public Library and you might confuse it with a café.

People are sprawled out on brightly colored soft couches. Others are sitting at tables, their laptops propped open and plugged into the many electrical outlets embedded in the wall. Black and white acoustical tiles affixed to a wall above some open cubicles absorb sound. There is a sense of steady absorption.

Oh, this being the library, there is also a place to check out laptops to use.

Welcome to “The Commons,” a new seating area in the main branch of the library. Funded with a $75,000 grant from the Berkeley Public Library Foundation ($15,000 of which came from Bayer HealthCare) the new area opened its doors a few weeks ago. On a recent Thursday afternoon, it was humming with students from Berkeley High working on their homework, writers, and others clicking on their computers.

“It gives the library a different feel,” said Anna Skrzypczynska,  teacher who was doing some writing. She said she works in the library about two to three times a week. “It makes it more inviting and a whole lot more convenient than finding a spot upstairs. It’s laid back.”

The new “The Commons” area in the Central Branch of the Berkeley Public Library. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
The area has tall tables, couches, cubicles and tables in which to sit. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

That’s exactly what Berkeley Library staff had been hoping to hear.

“The Commons was envisioned by a team of BPL staff as a welcoming and flexible area for reading, gathering in small groups, co-working, studying, and using devices,” according to an announcement about the project.

Before being remodeled, the area had been underused as it was mainly a corridor between the service desks and the stairs to the second-floor stacks.

“We designed The Commons to be a refreshed lounge area that provides a variety of seating options for reading, browsing on a laptop or small group conversations,” said Alyson Yarus, the lead architect for Berkeley architecture and design firm Noll & Tam, which oversaw the project.

Warren Maes-Maninger, a first-year student at Berkeley High, was sitting on an orange chair while working on his homework one recent afternoon. His friend, Will Curran, was alternately lying down, listening to music, and leaning in to talk to his friend about his work.

“I really like it here,” said Maes-Maninger. “After school, I like to do my homework and chill out. It wasn’t a fun space before. Now I want to come here more than I want to go home after school.”

The library will be hosting a gathering to welcome patrons to The Commons on Saturday, October 6, 2:00 pm – 4:00 pm. The event, for all ages, will include a block-building challenge for children, a concert by local performers of the musical collective Hoot, face painting, and a scavenger hunt with prizes for individuals and families.

For questions regarding The Commons and the laptop lending kiosk, please call 510-981-6195.

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...