Has the Berkeley Public Library deserted its core values of “Community, Collaboration, and Conversation”? Recent events suggest it has.
Libraries are my happy place. For the past 36 years, I have been a joyful patron of the Central Branch of the Berkeley Public Library. As a parent, I practically raised my kids in the library. As a writer, I rely heavily on the library’s own collection and on Link+ for my research. As a local resident, I often duck into the library for a reading respite between other activities in downtown Berkeley.
But my favorite experience at the library has been the Playreaders program, which I joined in early 2010, about a year after its inception. For these past nine years, I have gathered almost every Wednesday at noon with other lovers of theater and literature to read plays out loud together and to talk about their meaning for our lives now. A changing group of about 30 people are regular participants, with 15 to 20 people present most weeks. It has been a lot of fun, a source of community and of inspiration, and it has changed my life. It really has. Because my participation in Playreaders led directly to my finding an artistic collaborator who shares my passion for classic literature and drama and my commitment to feminism. Together we founded a theater company, Those Women Productions, which is now entering its sixth year of staging adventurous theater in the city of Berkeley.
From the beginning, we have imagined our audiences as like the people who frequent the library – curious, open-minded, and from diverse backgrounds. We think theater should be a public good. Like libraries. And so we practice “radical hospitality,” as the library does, and welcome everyone regardless of ability to pay.
The impact of Playreaders on my life will endure. The program itself, however, is in jeopardy. Recently, over the objections of the library patrons and without any explanation, library administrators moved the program from Wednesday noons at Central to Friday mornings at North Branch. The reasons for the change appear to be capricious, and the results are unquestionably discriminatory. Although the librarian who founded Playreaders retired in March, another Central Branch librarian was happy to step into the supervisory role. A long-time volunteer was delighted to continue to provide support. And the Community Meeting Room at Central had already been booked for the program through the end of 2019. So why the change?
Changing the time and place of Playreaders inconveniences those of us who, like me, have business in downtown Berkeley and who join the program during our lunch hour. But far more important, moving Playreaders away from Central – for no apparent good reason – discriminates against the many members of the group who are older, low-income, and/or possess mobility challenges. The majority of participants in Playreaders are seniors and many of them do not drive. The change in location creates a high barrier to them because North Branch is so much less accessible by public transportation. It is also in a more affluent and much less densely populated neighborhood, which means far fewer people, in general, can get there from their homes by walking; low-income participants, in particular, are less likely to live in North Berkeley and so are disproportionately affected by the move.
Over the ten years of its existence, Playreaders has provided an exceptional opportunity for members of the community to connect and to enjoy the unique pleasure of reading plays aloud. It has embodied the values of community, collaboration, and conversation. At the Central Library, it has been accessible to patrons without regard to their means or physical abilities. It should remain so.