At a time when local governments talk more about cutting public services than providing new ones, Oakland’s newest library branch bucks the trend. No modest affair, the new 81st Avenue Library opens its doors Saturday in one of the city’s most troubled areas.
With 21,000 square feet of book stacks, computer stations, and reading rooms, the library resources seem sufficient on their own. But in the back, a doorway leads out into the grounds of EnCompass Academy and ACORN Woodland elementary schools, which share a facility in the building next door. The library is a joint project between the city and the Oakland Unified School District, and it doubles as a school library for these 530 students. Students can use their entrance to the library to access a classroom and a computer lab, as well as a children’s section in the book stacks.
The library is near to 11 other schools in this section of East Oakland, and provides student-focused services like a teen reading room with a lounge; an age-appropriate book, CD and DVD collection; and a teen-friendly periodical rack.
There are similar resources at East Oakland’s other branch libraries—Martin Luther King Jr. and Brookfield are closest—but neither has the space or breadth of resources available at 81st Avenue. The joint public-school library is the first of its kind for Oakland. The school district’s director of public relations, Troy Flint, said that not every school in the district has its own library, though all have access to online resources.
Students’ excitement over the library has been growing as the opening date approaches, a feeling that school officials have actively encouraged. EnCompass Academy Principal Minh-Tram Nguyen said that they worked with the library to get the kids amped up to read.
“We thought, ‘What would it be like if we made a big deal out of this library?’” Nguyen said. In addition to appointing “library ambassadors” in the student body and making sure every student who didn’t have a library card got an application, the school made an event out of the delivery of a giant truckload of books. Complete with dramatic music from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the event allowed students to help unpack the books that form the library’s 25,000-volume collection.
Nguyen said the library reflects the values she’d like to pass on to children. “Reading is not only a scholarly endeavor, but it also is a way of life,” she said.
Nguyen said she was pleased that in addition to passing on the importance of literacy, the facility emphasizes the environment; the library is LEED Silver certified.
The public will have access to the library’s collection and many computers, as well as an adult reading room and eventually an Internet café. A public art feature encourages people to upload their personal stories, using video, text or or photography, to a digital oral history of East Oakland. Called “Our Oakland: Eastside Stories,” the project collects narratives from residents on a computerized kiosk where library patrons can view them.
“This is a community with so many overlooked and undervalued assets,” said Rene Yung, the artist commissioned to create the Eastside Stories project. Citing the violence and crime that characterizes the region to the outside world, Yung said she wanted to “change the conversation” about East Oakland.
To get the project started before the opening of the library, Yung sought out groups with ties to the community and started producing videos. Oakland Leaf, a group that trains young people in multimedia skills, contributed videos to the project, as did First Voice Media, a group also focused on teaching people to tell stories through video.
While it might seem unlikely for the city to complete a $14.8 million building in the current financial climate, less than half of the funds came from the city’s redevelopment fund. The California State Library awarded a $6.5 million grant in 2004, and the Friends of the Oakland Public Library raised $3 million in donations to pay for the furnishings inside the building.
The process wasn’t easy. Planning started in 2003, and Gerry Garzón, Oakland Public Library’s associate director, said every piece of funding was crucial. “This could not have happened without any of these things,” Garzón said.
The Redevelopment Agency funds helped with the public art created by Yung, who in addition to the digital storytelling project, created a south-facing patchwork of windows near the ceiling of the library. The windows fill the building with light, and feature different colors and designs. One such design is a ripple, which Yung said is meant to remind viewers that their actions affect everyone around them.
EnCompass Principal Nguyen also hopes the surroundings will send a positive message to students. “When you surround children with beauty, they start reflecting that,” she said. “When they think of themselves in the hood, they don’t get that message.”
Update: This article originally spelled Minh-Tram Nguyen’s name last name incorrectly as “Nyugen.” It also named Troy Flint as Oakland’s superintendant of schools. Mr. Flint is the director of public relations. Oakland North regrets the errors.