When the new Walnut Creek library opens its doors Saturday, visitors will encounter more than a cutting-edge building brimming with books.

At one entrance, they'll be greeted by internationally recognized artist Christian Moeller's 26-foot-tall portrait of a cheeky librarian holding a finger to her lips. At another, they'll walk under a stream of colorful glass bottles riding a metal tidal wave. And in the children's area they won't be able to help but notice the playful sculptures of bees, dragonflies and flowers flitting across the walls.

In the past decade, a number of Bay Area cities have built new libraries usually financed by a combination of state bonds, voter-approved measures, grants and private donations. Equipped with meeting and conference rooms, computers, fireplaces and even cafes, this new crop of public libraries have been designed to serve as "community living rooms" that buzz with energy. And because many cities have public art ordinances, which typically set aside 1 to 2 percent of funds toward the purchase of art for major building projects and developments, art is becoming an increasingly visible part of these social hubs.

"I think art reflects some of the fundamental purposes of the library," said Anne Cain, director and county librarian of the Contra Costa County Library. "(Libraries are) more than repositories of books. They are community gathering places around reading and culture. Art provides an opportunity and a way to transfer knowledge."

Walnut Creek spent nearly $300,000, or about 1 percent of the library's $39.9 million cost, on Moeller's piece and San Jose artist Marta Thoma's "Journey of a Bottle," and an additional 15 works by Bay Area artists. The Lafayette Library and Learning Center bought nearly $400,000 worth of paintings, photographs, sculptures and prints, and commissioned a pair of site-specific outdoor artworks for their sprawling complex which opened in 2009. Many libraries also have community art galleries, where exhibits rotate frequently and the public can display their creations.

The art is typically selected by a panel of artists, arts professionals, city leaders and residents, to reflect the culture of the community, Cain said.

Perhaps that's why some residents are sensitive about what they wind up with. In 2004, the city of Livermore commissioned a $40,000 mosaic for the plaza in front of their new library. But the widespread attention the mosaic received was directed toward artist Maria Alquilar's spelling errors rather than her whimsical depictions of historical figures that included Albert Einstein and Shakespeare. The controversy surrounding the mosaic was so intense that the Miami-based artist had to slip quietly back into town to fix her mistakes — at the city's expense.

Today, the mural is no longer a source of civic embarrassment. "Kids love it because it's so colorful," said Susan Gallinger, Livermore's director of library services.

The idea of public art in libraries is such a trend that even communities like Orinda and Martinez, which do not have public art funds, have found alternate ways of placing art in them or nearby. Orinda City Parks and Recreation has instituted a rotating loan program where artists display fabricated metal, wood and clay sculptures near the library and the adjacent community center and city hall. Todd Skinner, Parks and Recreation director, said that the department is trying to raise $20,000 — which the city will match with restricted-use park fees — to begin purchasing art.

A group effort brought art to the Martinez library. When former children's librarian Sandy Steiner proposed a reading garden a few years ago, the community leapt into action. The Friends of the Library raised about $3,000 to fund an outdoor mural and mosaic, and sculptor Paul Craig donated the metal storybook characters decorating the library's outside walls.

Gifts also played an important role in bringing art to the Walnut Creek library. When the selection panel found it didn't have enough funds to cover the cost of all the work it wanted, donors stepped in. Additionally, Arizona sculptor Peter Goldlust's zany installation of biomorphic creatures, which adorns the wall across from the Young Adults Zone, was funded by Rossmoor resident Stella Liu. Benicia artist Jung-Moo Ahn gave the library a pair of Chinese brushwork-inspired paintings. Alamo residents Jan and Mary Ann Beekhius chipped in more than a half-dozen pieces from their collection of 19th-century Dutch paintings. And San Francisco sculptor Amy Blackstone donated several of the fanciful steel panels depicting Mt. Diablo wildlife in the Children's Library Garden.

Spread throughout the library, the works complement the building's architecture and sleek interior. But will such a bounty of art overwhelm patrons?

Richard DuBey doesn't think so. The Walnut Creek resident got a sneak peek at the library during a recent private reception.

"Everywhere I turned, I found fascinating things," DuBey said. The art wasn't distracting. It created an illusion, a certain mood. The word I would use is 'ambience.' (The library) doesn't have an institutional feel. It's artful."

PUBLIC ART IN LIBRARIES
Some Bay Area libraries(with public art:
Walnut Creek Library, 2010
Cost: $39.9 million. Size: 42,000 square feet. Art budget: $300,000. Highlights include a pair of large-scale commissions by Los Angeles-based artist Christian Moeller and San Jose resident Marta Thoma.
Castro Valley Library and Creek, 2009
Cost: $22.3 million. Size: 34,537 square feet. Art budget for library and the Castro Valley Creek: $500,000. Highlights include a large-scale wall sculpture by artist Eric Powell at the entrance of the library, an installation in the main reading room and a ceramic tile mural by Jos Sances in the children's room.
Lafayette Library and Learning Center, 2009
Cost: $43 million. Size: More than 30,000 square feet. Art budget: $387,500. Highlights include an outdoor sculpture by artist Brian Goggin and glasswork by Kana Tanaka on the children's reading deck.
Alameda Main Library, 2006
Cost: $26.1 million. Size: 45,838 square feet. Art budget: $100,000. Highlights include outdoor and indoor murals by artists Masayuki Nagase and Michele Ku, and carved sculpture by Michael Carey.
Livermore Civic Center Library, 2004
Cost: $26.3 million. Size: 53,000 square feet. Art budget: $296,000. Highlights include stained glass windows by Benicia artist Arthur Stern and a tile mosaic by Maria Alquilar.
Dublin Library, 2003:
Cost: $18 million. Size: 37,000 square feet. Art budget: $180,000 Highlights include stained glass panels by artist Peter Mollica, sculptures by Robert W. Ellison and a construction paper mural by Mark Evans and Charlie Brown.

IF YOU GO
WHAT: The public's first chance to see Walnut Creek's new library will be celebrated with a day of talks and activities for all ages.
WHEN: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: 1644 N. Broadway
PARKING: On Saturday, the library's new 121-space underground parking garage is designated for vehicles with handicapped parking placards, special permit holders, shuttle buses and passenger drop-off only. There will be free valet parking for bicycles and strollers at the Lincoln Street entrance, and the free Downtown Trolley which has been rerouted Saturday to stop at the front door. Besides metered parking and public parking garages, Broadway Pointe at 1465 Duncan St., First Bank at 1700 N. Broadway, and First Republic Bank at 1400 Civic Drive have all agreed to allow public parking Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
INFORMATION: www.walnut-creek.org or www.WCLibrary.org.