Berkeley Information Network: A Good Place to Seek Help

It is very rewarding for librarians when the Berkeley Information Network is used as a source of help for homeless people and those living on the edge. Berkeley librarian Isobel Schneider declares enthusiastically, “This is the area we really shine in — to help people find resources that can really improve their lives.”

by Lydia Gans


Libraries do a lot more than lend out reading and listening materials these days. For years, Berkeley libraries have had racks near the front desks holding sets of colorful flyers listing community services such as free meals, homeless shelters and legal services, as well as organizations needing volunteer help.

The flyers are a project of BIN, the Berkeley Information Network, which is produced and maintained by the Berkeley public library. It is highly user-friendly — a huge online listing of organizations providing a wide range of resources available primarily in Berkeley and Oakland.

Thirty years ago, Berkeley libraries began keeping a special card file of local organizations that offer resources to the community. When the library created an online catalog, these cards were also added. Recently a new, separate, user-friendly BIN website was set up with detailed information, updated annually, on more than 2300 organizations.

Reference librarian Isobel Schneider coordinates the maintenance of the BIN website with a team of library staffers.

The organizations listed under 28 subject headings span a diverse array of groups focused on such themes as animals, food, housing, legal services, sports, religious groups, politics/government, etc.

Under each subject heading, one can click on particular subheadings. For example, under “animals,” one can click on “dogs or cats” and get a list of 25 organizations. In that list there are pet loss support groups, service animals, Berkeley city animal care services, and more.

The listings under government/politics include political and social agencies at all levels of government, as well as all sorts of special interest resources. Clicking on a specific organization then yields up-to-date details of names, addresses, contact information, services and mission.

Setting up this system of classification must have been a formidable task. But then, librarians do that sort of thing. “Librarians think that way,” Isobel Schneider explains.

People using the BIN find it easy to access and convenient. They begin by clicking on “browse” to bring up the list of 28 subject headings. From there, they can follow the steps to find specific organizations and make their own list. They can use the keyword search if they remember a name or even an address of an agency they want to locate. When they find the resources they want, they can print out the list or e-mail it to another address.

BIN is used a great deal by professionals in various fields to get resources for their clients. More interesting and particularly rewarding for the librarians is its use as a source of help for homeless people and those living on the edge with few resources.

According to Schneider, BIN listings help people gain access to vital legal information and all kinds of social services. She declares enthusiastically, “Even though BIN is filled with other things like entertainment, this is the area we really shine in — to help people find resources that can really improve their lives.

“I can’t tell you the joy that comes with finding the right organization for the person and the joy that they feel in having found something that’s going to help them. For example, when you are in a low-income position and you need legal help for numerous legal problems — it could be a divorce, a problem with a child, or it could be a problem with the law — you have nowhere (else) to go.”

Berkeley librarian Isobel Schneider (at right) helps a library patron access BIN (Berkeley Information Network). Lydia Gans photo


BIN is a tool that librarians use when people ask for assistance. Referring them to a book or other medium isn’t always the most helpful thing they could do.

Schneider described two separate instances that occurred in one week when patrons came to the reference desk asking for information on head injuries. The librarian at the desk started to refer them to books on the subject, but “they just sort of had a kind of blank face,” Isobel recalls. “I was looking at them and I realized, I think these people have head injuries and they’re kind of at sea.

“So I asked them, ‘Would you be interested in organizations that support people with head injuries?’ And their faces just lit up. These are two separate people, two different days, for some reason, in the same week and their eyes just lit up. Yes! Yes! So I went into BIN and did a keyword search for head injuries and several organizations appeared and I printed the list out and they were absolutely thrilled. And you could tell that they didn’t know where to turn. They may have been treated medically for it, but this was an ongoing problem for them. It’s not going to go away.”

All this is a relatively new and ever-expanding concept in library services.

“We’re trying to expand and impress on everybody to make searches in BIN an adjunct to every reference that you do if it’s at all appropriate,” Schneider explains.

“It just opens up worlds that you didn’t think of, and I almost never had anyone turn down the opportunity to find a support organization. People looking for work, people going through all kinds of emotional transitions, life changes, challenges finding support groups, finding counsel. We also have things like some summer camp information and unusual summer camps for kids.”

The BIN data base is constantly expanding as staff find new organizations. It is another one of the many great programs the Berkeley library offers the community. Their website is directly accessible at

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