Notes from 81st Ave

A Mills College and KALW public radio reporting project exploring the roles public libraries play in Oakland neighborhoods.

One out of every six residents in Alameda County is served by the Alameda County Community Food Bank. The non-profit partners with 275 member agencies to provide almost fifty thousand people with food each week. In addition to working with soup kitchens and food pantries, the Food Bank’s Community Outreach Program helps eligible individuals and families apply for nutrition assistance programs, like CalFresh, formerly known as food stamps.

But the problem is, many people have no idea that they’re even eligible. So CalFresh is trying to reach out—and one place they’re doing that is at the Asian Branch of the Oakland Public Library. For nearly a decade (since 2005), the food bank has been offering application assistance to some of Oakland’s most vulnerable residents: immigrants who are not native English speakers. As Katja Geldhof reports, The Food Bank’s multilingual outreach staff visit the bustling Chinatown library each month to provide counseling in Cantonese, Mandarin, and Vietnamese.

In most libraries, the main function is to plant seeds of knowledge. But at the Cesar Chavez Branch in East Oakland, sowing seeds is taken a bit more literally. That’s right. In the Fruitvale, you can check out books, movies and CDs. And now you can check out seeds to plant in your own home garden. What exactly does a seed library look like? We sent reporter Kat Reeve to do a little digging.

Reading is what you expect to find at a public library and the Lakeview Branch in Oakland doesn’t disappoint. Often you’ll find parents and librarians sharing books with children. But, at Lakeview the kids are the ones doing the reading and to an audience you might not expect.

Know of any popular hangouts in the area? Think you’d suggest a library if anyone asked? Probably not, but, of Oakland’s many Public Libraries, the Martin Luther King Jr Branch might be the one to change your mind. No bigger than most coffee shops, this library somehow manages not only to entertain its variety of regulars, but also to serve them and their unique needs. Reporter Erin Clark was wondering what’s got the little library bustling with so much life, so she decided to find out.

As we’ve found in our series exploring Oakland libraries, people go to libraries these days not for just books, but for all kinds of other services: computers, internet, DVD’s. The Main Branch of the Oakland Library also wants to get back to basics: they’re trying to reinforce the importance of books and reading. So they’ve started a new program: The Mobile Bike Library. As Sarah O’Neal reports, once a week librarians from the Main branch bring stacks of books to different neighborhoods, all on the back of a bike.

Libraries have long been known as quiet places to read and check out books. But over the last decade, many libraries in Oakland have begun to take on a different identity: community centers. Some have become spaces for multi-cultural events and social gatherings and these can be loud. Michele Kilmer went to the Golden Gate Library in North Oakland, and brings us this story.

Mills College reporting students visited the Oakland Public Library branches to discover the new roles public libraries are stepping into to fulfill the diverse needs of Oakland neighborhoods – and the people they are impacting. Eighty-first Avenue is the newest library in Oakland. It has a sleek, modern exterior, unexpected angles and large green-tinted windows. Inside, it is just as modern, not just in its architecture and amenities, but in the programs it provides for the community. Eighty-first Avenue hosts unexpected events like “Game Nights” for teenagers, and offers exercise classes every Saturday. It is also the school library for the two charter schools next door—ACORN Woodland and EnCompass Academy. And Eighty-first Avenue is also the only public library in Oakland that boasts a cafe. From Mills College, student reporter Megan Susman, has that story.

Teenager’s today are under a lot of pressure—from family and school expectations to social pressure, many kids have a lot on their plate. Some child development experts are wondering if our kids are too scheduled and are asking: How important is it for teenagers to have time to be with their peers without adult supervision? As part of our series looking at Oakland libraries, Mills student reporter Kelli Johnston takes us to the Asian branch in downtown Oakland. Once a week from 3:30 to 5:00 pm, teenagers at the library are given the opportunity to come to Game Days.

As a society we are grappling with the effects of global warming. Government officials meet for high level talks to craft large scale solutions, like they did in Warsaw late last year. But, as individuals we may feel left out of the dialogue. Still, we face environmental dilemmas every day: do I recycle my coffee cup or throw it in the trash? Should I pick up this garbage on the ground? Can I garden in my yard or is the soil toxic? Elizabeth Welsh has been struggling with these questions in her own neighborhood of West Oakland. She takes us with her to find some answers. 

If you walk along International, counting the cross streets as you continue 85th, 86th, 87th, be sure to take a turn at 88th to visit Elmhurst Library. But look closely! You might miss it among the houses. That’s because the library is in a small converted house. Elmhurst operates like any other public library: computers for use, videos and books to check out. But what makes this branch stick out is the children’s program. The problem is that most kids can’t actually get to the library. Mills student reporter Alyia Yates has the story of what Elmhurst is doing to fix that problem.