Dec 3 2010

Oakland’s Library Director Comes to Piedmont LWV

Oakland Public Library Director Carmen Martinez was the featured speaker at the League of Women Voters’ Holiday Lunch Program on Wednesday, December 1.  Martinez was charmingly modest about her appointment by former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown in 2000, claiming she was the third choice, after Maya Angelou and Angela Davis both turned down the job.

The theme of her talk was “Opportunity for All,” noting that library cards are granted to anyone, even with no ID, and that activities are offered for all ages and segments of the population.  The Library’s adult literacy program, Second Start, is the only one in the Bay Area that works with completely illiterate adults and helps them achieve modest goals, such as just learning to write their name.  “People often stay for years at the Second Start Program,” Martinez said. Demand for Russian language materials is huge, and a Farsi collection is being developed at the Golden Gate branch.

Although many bookshops have closed due to the popularity of buying books online, “People are reading more than ever,” Martinez said.  “Last year we circulated 2.4 million items.  There are currently 80 people on the waiting list for Decision Points by George W. Bush.”  Because of the economy, many people can’t afford Netflix or internet access at home, so the library provides DVDs and free wifi in all their branches. The heaviest computer use is at the Eastmont branch library.  She explained how the relationship with schools has changed.  “School curricula requirements and field trip limitations have meant that whole classes don’t come to our libraries any more. So we are going out to the schools.”

A major accomplishment will be the late January opening of the beautiful new 81st Street library in East Oakland on the same site as the Acorn Woodland Elementary School and Encompass Academy.  The new library is integrated with the schools so that it can provide more programs for these students.  “Its staff is bilingual, bi-cultural and the librarian, who is from the neighborhood, spent years getting her library degree and will now achieve her goal in the new 81st Street library.”  The library has all the latest equipment and facilities.  The furniture alone cost over $3 million.

Another proud accomplishment was locating the Afro-American Museum and Library in 2002 in the beautifully restored Andrew Carnegie-funded Beaux Arts building on 14th Street in downtown Oakland.

On the other hand, she said, the Main Library is 60 years old—“a horrible building and the little branches are in terrible shape.”  The Elmhurst Branch has been closed for five months in order to have bathrooms and new data cabling installed.  The Asian library branch in Chinatown has a new bathroom.

Martinez then focused on the Piedmont Avenue branch library, which was of great concern to the audience.  She explained that the building had never belonged to the City and is completely inadequate.  It costs $250,000 a year, in addition to the new rent of $51,000 for a total of $301,000 to operate the branch, which Martinez said “is the third or fourth most used branch library.”  She has saved funds from Measure Q each year and is using some of those funds to pay the $51,000 rent for the next 12 months, but, she cautioned she cannot continue to devote Measure Q funds to that rent in the future.  The building has no air conditioning, and Martinez said Cal OSHA requires the library to close when the temperature exceeds 87 degrees.  It’s too small to accommodate visits by local school classes and does not have a meeting room for neighborhood gatherings.  An audience member who owns a business on Piedmont Avenue said that it seems to be well used and well liked.  “What could be better than a little library with a number of people using it?”  The good news for the audience was that Martinez said the option of moving the library into a trailer, as was being considered is not viable. 

At present, Martinez is implementing the latest strategic plan for the Oakland Public Library, which includes determining —“what is our staff not going to do anymore?” and redesigning the Library’s website.

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