Tess Mayer has taken over as director of the Berkeley Public Library. Photo: Pete Rosos

Tess Mayer could not have taken over leadership of the Berkeley Public Library at a more difficult time.

Mayer moved from Seattle to Berkeley in late September to take up the helm of an organization with 116 full-time equivalent employees, a $19 million budget funded by taxpayers, five branch locations, 110,000 library cardholders and more than 1.5 million moving parts. (The amount of material circulating.) Yet the new director of library services has had to work in an almost deserted office (at the central branch of the library), has not been able to even shake anyone’s hand and has only met most of her staff — and the board members who hired her — via Zoom because of COVID-19 social distancing requirements.

“It’s not an easy job to jump into,” said John Selawsky, the president of BOLT, the Board of Library Trustees, which voted unanimously in August to hire her. “There’s a lot going on right now: how to get books and tools to people in a time when contagion is on the rise. Making sure staff and patrons are safe. These are issues our staff would not have to deal with in normal times.”

Mayer told Berkeleyside that coming into a new job when all the regular mechanisms of work have been upended presents a challenge, but one she’s up for. She is the kind of manager who likes to build a team and keep the people she relies on close, she said. That isn’t possible now, but Mayer is not complaining.

Tess Mayer says she loves Berkeley’s “strong sense of community and investment in the community.”

Mayer’s last job was as the director of library outreach, programs and services for the King County Library System in Washington, 15 miles from Seattle. It’s the busiest library system in the U.S.  with 50 branches and 4.1 million circulating items. Mayer, who said she is “passionate about services to the public” had been looking to head her own system and loved Berkeley’s “strong sense of community and investment in the community.” That led her to pursue the position, even though the library’s last two directors each left less than a year after they had been hired, the library board had been in turmoil, and staff morale was low.

Mayer said she was reassured after she had extensive discussions with the BOLT board, which had hired a consultant, Moss Adams, in 2017 to analyze the library’s direction and suggest steps for improvement before it set off looking for a new director.

“What was really heartening for me in the interview process was how candid the trustees were about their assessment of the organization and what they thought needed to happen,” said Mayer. “People were very frank and open.”

The board members had also worked on improving communications with one another and with staff. Elliot Warren, the deputy director who served as interim director for three years, had put the library on better footing. BOLT also made sure to involve SEIU Local 1021 in the hiring process, which made library staff feel they had more input into the decision than when BOLT hired the previous directors, Heidi Dolomore and Jeff Scott.

The pandemic has slowed down the tempo of library operations

While the pandemic has slowed down the tempo of library operations, it has offered Mayer an opportunity time to get to know how the library works and its staff. Mayer has set a goal of meeting every single staff member to get their thoughts on library operations and hear their suggestions for improvement.

“The Moss Adams report said the next director should take time to interview staff and get to know them,” said Diane Davenport, a BOLT director. “The shutdown … is a great time for Tess to interview everyone and that is what she has said she wants to do. She will then have a good picture of how this library works for each and every staff member.”

While the library branches have been shut for nine months, (curbside pick-up started in June) in some ways the library has become more vital than ever. The circulation of books, CDs, DVDs and other physical items has dropped compared to life before COVID-19, but patrons are using more electronic materials. The checkout of ebooks and movies skyrocketed almost 28% in the past year. From July 2018 to June 2019, patrons took out 487,829 electronic items. From July 2019 to June 2020, they took out 623,339 items.

The circulation of books, CDs, DVDs and other physical items at the library has dropped compared to life before COVID-19, but patrons are using more electronic materials.. Photo: Pete Rosos

The library has also moved its programs online, streaming them on its Facebook page.  Its “Reading Is Instrumental: All-Star Storytime,” a collaboration with the Berkeley Public Library Foundation and the Berkeley Symphony, had famous people read books out loud, including the actor Rita Moreno; Maxine Hong Kingston, the author, and her husband, Earll Kingston, an actor; Berkeley native Andy Samberg, a comedian and actor; Joseph Young, the music director of the Berkeley Symphony; Thacher Hurd, an author and illustrator, and Marcus Semien, a shortstop and third baseman for the Oakland A’s, and Michael Kwende, a children’s librarian.

While the doors are still shut, Mayer and her staff are working on plans to improve service to patrons and the library experience. Mayer has told BOLT that one of her priorities is to prepare a strategic plan for the library, an assessment recently echoed by a September audit done by the city auditor. But in the short term, here are some programs and changes the library is pursuing, said Mayer:

  • More equitable computer access. Many people used to come to the library daily to use computers. Now that they are shut, it is common to see people sitting outside the branches in order to use the system’s free WiFi. The library is planning a small pilot program, funded by the Berkeley Public Library Foundation, to lend out mobile hot-spots so people can use their phones and laptops anywhere they want. The library also plans to start lending out computers to some of Berkeley’s most vulnerable. Previously, patrons could check out computers or tablets but they had to remain on site. The program could start in about two months.
  • A social worker in the library San Francisco and other library systems have onsite social workers who not only work with patrons to connect them to housing, mental health and other services, but work with staff to help them deal with difficult or upset patrons. Mayer said she hopes to find funding in the coming years to create this kind of program.
  • Examine the institutional racism inherent in the library system and develop programs that address it. For a long time, libraries thought as long as they presented programs and services that appealed to different races and economic groups they were spreading resources equitably. Since anyone could get a library card and come to the library, everyone had equal access, the thinking went. But that often meant a canned approach, not one that examined the impact or efficacy of programs. That “sameness” was celebrated, said Mayer. For example, bookmobiles in many systems had routes that may have gone from daycare to daycare. But those routes may have been developed without considering who really needs access to the bookmobile, who doesn’t get to the library, who is in an early learning center where the books aren’t high quality or there isn’t money to buy decent books. “Then you prioritize those places,” said Mayer. “We need to work on developing equitable services not equality-based services,” she said. “We have to acknowledge people aren’t starting in the same place, they have different needs, and people define success differently.” Mayer presented a list of priorities for the library in 2021 and they included steps to increase the diversity and equity of the library’s collections and programming. She intends to appoint a team to work with the city in this area. A goal is to examine the library’s collections to ensure they serve the “diversity of backgrounds and interests of the Berkeley community.” Mayer also wants the library to create monthly programs “that support the learning and cultural interests of a diverse community. Another priority is to partner with people in the disability services and rights community to” improve services for residents living with disabilities,” she wrote in a report to BOLT.

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...