Berkeley library stays relevant with shift to digital

Central Branch of the Berkeley Public Library. Photo: Kaia Diringer

There were more than 680,000 visits to the Central Branch of the Berkeley Public Library in 2012. Photo: Kaia Diringer

2012 was a year of big changes for the Berkeley Public Library. Two of its branches, Claremont and North, reopened after extensive remodeling. Two other branches, South and West, closed for their own redos.

As Donna Corbeil, the library’s director, put it in the library’s annual report, “library spaces have moved far beyond the traditional hushed reading room.” Instead of just offering books at brick and mortar locations, the library is providing services to “Berkeley’s continuum of learning and inspiration,” according to Corbeil.

This means lending books, magazines, music, and films the way people want them, whether from traditional paper book format to downloadable eBooks and music, to online digital formats.

Donna Corbeil, the director of Library Services, points out the features of a new book sorting machine at the North Branch. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Donna Corbeil, Director of Library Services, points out the features of a new book sorting machine at the North Branch. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

“In this shifting landscape, one of the questions I am most frequently asked is ‘how will the library stay relevant?’” Corbeil wrote in the report.  “Like all libraries, we strive to be a central part of our community by meeting expectations and changing needs of the people we serve. We have grown and evolved by embracing new technologies and innovating along the way.”

The library spent $14,181,900 in fiscal year 2012, with the bulk of the revenue coming from the Library Services Tax provided by Berkeley homeowners, according to the report. That tax was increased by 2.81%, and will be increased another 3.77% in the fiscal year 2013. This rise will assist the library in creating a reserve fund, said Corbeil.

Here are some facts about the library, gleaned from its 2012 Annual Report and its website:


  • The library carries 660,000 books, audio books, CDs, and DVDs and a database, Music Online, of streamable music.
  • The library carries material for adults in English, Arabic, Chinese, French, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, and Urdu.
  • In 2012, customers made 1.2 million visits to the library (equal to ten times the population of Berkeley). More than 680,000 of these visits were to the Central Library.
  • Patrons checked out 1.76 million items, making it the most checkouts per capita (19.25) in California of comparably sized cities.
  • The Berkeley Public Library website had 990,000 visits.
  • Librarians responded to 150,000 requests for information.
  • In FY 2013, the library expects to spend $1 million on new materials.
  • The library system has 120 computers with Internet Access, including laptops.
  • There is free wireless in all the branches.


  • Staff worked with UC Berkeley and the Historical Society to curate an exhibit on the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.
  • The library instituted the Discover and Go program, which allows library card holders free admission to 40 Bay Area institutions, including the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, the UC Botanical Garden, the Berkeley Art Museum, and the Lawrence Hall of Science.
  • A new phone app, Boopsie, allows patrons to search the catalog, place holds, and directly download books onto their mobile devices.
  • Librarians created a new interactive program, Little Scientist Time, for 3 to 5 year olds.
  • The library hosted a number of free concerts, including with the Kitka Women’s Ensemble, the Chanticleer Youth Ensemble, Berkeley West Edge Opera, and Erika Oba, a pianist at Berkeley’s JazzSchool
  • The library collaborated with Aurora Theater to do a seminar on Arthur Schitzel’s Anatol.
A boy reads a book while a dog listens intently at Paws to Read at the North Branch of the Berkeley Public Library on Feb. 5. Photo: Kaia Diringer

A boy reads a book while a dog listens intently at Paws to Read at the North Branch of the Berkeley Public Library on Feb. 5. Photo: Kaia Diringer

  • The library offered classes in computers, literacy through Berkeley Reads, pairing kids with dogs, and more.
  • Librarians made reading recommendations on their blog Baiting the Hook.  (Detroit by Scott Martelle is the recommended book of the day.)
  • The library offered a series of themed newsletters with reading suggestions.
  • The library offered an amnesty for overdue book and forgave $30,000 in fines.

2012 was not without its glitches, however. The company constructing the new West Branch Library inadvertently damaged the roots of a 70-foot high redwood tree in October, necessitating its removal. The library will plant a cork oak in its place.

Read the library’s 2012 Annual Report.

Kaia Diringer is Berkeleyside’s photo intern. See more of her work on Flickr.

Children read in the company of dogs at Berkeley library [02.07.13]
Berkeley artist Vita Wells makes books fly at main library [02.11.13]
Local stars come out for the Berkeley Public Library [02.11.13]

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  • I’ve watched the book sorter at the North Branch in action, and it is really fun to watch.

  • MarkusBarkus

    The redwood tree incident took place at the West Branch, not the South Branch… a sad loss, nonetheless.

  • Frances Dinkelspiel

    Thanks for correcting that.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Circulation isn’t really a function of population in urban areas in California. Any resident of the state can obtain a card from any public library and borrow materials. I know lots of folks who do just that and it is why the tool library requires additional proofs of residency.

    For digital collections, this makes a curious arrangement. One can collect cards and borrow from home with very infrequent trips to the sponsoring library. So, if you are wondering why popular titles have so many holds ahead of yours, consider that you’re jockeying for position with a much bigger pool of library users than those who pay for the Library Services Tax in Berkeley.

  • SarahSiddell

    The Berkeley Public Library is doing many fine things to serve its clients. I appreciate this very much!

    At the same time, the library has fewer than 4,000 large print books, including both fiction and non-fiction. For those who are vision-impaired and still love to read from an actual physical book, the pickings are slim indeed. When I asked a librarian why there was not a “Large Print” section on the New Books shelves, she said that because so few are purchased, it might be embarrassing to the library for people to see how few! We are an aging population. Older eyes appreciate large print, and some require it. I have an elderly friend for whom I take out books, and we’re running out of decent fiction in LP after only about a year. I hope the head librarians will read this and remedy the situation.

    Also, why in the world doesn’t the downtown branch have a book drop on the sidewalk, so people could turn in books without parking? Most libraries have one — just for that reason. And considering the parking situation downtown and two libraries closed, the need is greet.

  • Biker 94703

    What’s your solution to this problem?

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Electronic lending needs to be rethought.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Having hold lists for an artificially limited supply of ebooks is bizarre. Make the supply infinite and compensate based on usage.

  • blacklotus

    Because the staff would have to ferry hundreds of pound of library materials to and from said drop boxes. ALso these would fill up and be unuseable during peak times / after a holiday or any other time after hours. Take a look at the Library’s Facebook page at the photo’s of the bookdrop after a holiday and you will understand. I don’t think having to get out of your vehicle, after parking in thr loading zone to walk 8 feet is really a very big inconvience

  • Chris J

    The library…as do all libraries…have to pay for each ‘copy’ of a digital book they have on hand. The number of times the book may be downloaded apparently is related to how many times the physical book might be needing to be borrowed before it is replaced. Not sure of the number, but some correlation is applied. The library buys maybe one hundred downloads of, say, Game of Thrones, but then must purchase more.

  • Chris J

    Ummm…wouldn’t a pair of glasses be the answer to the shortage of large print books?

  • Julie

    Nope. Not for some. If you have cataract surgery ( one example ) for being near sighted, then one has trouble reading, without very expensive lenses or a surgery that medicare only pays a low portion of the expenses. Also there are people who are various eye conditions where glasses don’t help. I have an elderly friend who does well with the large print books and agree with Sarah we need to serve all of our population.

  • Julie Wong

    Berkeley Public Library is part of consortium of libraries called Link+. Through Link+, your friend has access to many more titles. Check with your local librarian.

  • Julie Wong

    I meant to say “through Link+, your friend has access to many more LP titles.”

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Yes, I get it. I am suggesting a rearchitecting of the arrangement.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    If you’d set aside the physical book requirement, you can borrow on a tablet ad then increase font size to suit your needs. Not the same, I know, but better than nothing.

  • jth

    I think that’s called “Amazon”.

  • ChrisJ

    ‘Rearchitecting’. Interesting word when ‘renegotiate the arrangement’ is a term I would have been my choice. But sure…lets rearchitect the deal.

  • Charles_Siegel

    You can’t make the supply infinite because of copyright issues. If you were a writer or a publisher, and you made your living from selling books, you would not be so casual about someone making infinite copies of those books and giving them away.

    Interestingly, I bought a book published in France from, and I had to get the physical book mailed to me. I tried to buy the ebook, but you had to have an address in France. The difference is that they do not make a new copy of the book when they sell a physical book, so there are no copyright issues, but they do make a new copy when they sell an ebook.

  • Biker 94703

    Perhaps all libraries in CA should pool their Ebooks. The point of a shared lending library is to have a centralized collection of (things) one can borrow. So why should something non-physical be tied to a physical location at all?

  • PragmaticProgressive

    You can absolutely make the supply infinite and compensate the copyright holder for each use. The present structure exists only because its design center (finite supply) hasn’t been reexamined. So, for a popular title, lend an infinite number of copies for a finite period and pay the creator for each copy. This is how online movie rental works.

    I don’t expect BPL to solve this unilaterally.

  • guest

    Libraries have limited funds and publishers are not selling e-books cheaply (especially to libraries.) I understand that some publishers won’t even sell e-books to libraries. I think it’s going to be a while before the publishers get more realistic about what’s a fair return on investment and for libraries to build up their supply of e-book materials.

  • Lee

    I have caught my hand in the flap at the book return several times; it shouldn’t require two hands!