You may remember seeing a little survey from the Seattle Public Library last month. If you’re anything like me, you support the library automatically and unconditionally. Your respect and admiration for librarians might even exceed your respect for police officers. When asked, you can immediately summon up two or three fond memories (and perhaps a couple strange ones) of walking around the Koolhaas sapphire downtown, or scanning the stacks of your local branch, or hearing a moving reading from an author. Back in 2012, you may have been part of the 63 percent of Seattle voters who approved a levy to give the library $123 million to restore services that had been cut during the recession.
And so, yeah, if the library asks you to fill out a survey about sprucing up the brand a little bit, you fill out that survey. The current logo—a wire-frame drawing of Earth inside an open book—does look like it belongs on the cover of a geometry textbook. Considering that “the visual identity” of the library hasn’t changed in 12 years (according internal documents), you could see how the logo might be due for a touch-up.
But my eyebrows rose slightly at the survey’s first question, which asked for the difference between the name “The Seattle Public Library” and “Seattle Public Libraries.” A question like that can mean only one of two things: (1) The library has gone full-on grammarian and wants to make sure its citizens know the difference between singular and plural nouns, or (2) the library is about to blow a bunch of cash on a lot of cosmetic nonsense in a misguided effort to appear relevant in a corporate world dominated by sleekness and soullessness and sadness. The next question in the survey was about a new “brand statement” that read as follows:
The Library provides access to knowledge, experiences, and learning for all. We preserve and create opportunities for the people of Seattle who make it such a dynamic and desirable place to live. When we’re empowered as individuals, we become STRONGER TOGETHER.
That statement—and THOSE CAPS—confirmed my fear that the second thing is happening, the thing where the library blows a bunch of cash to appear relevant in a corporate world of sleekness/soullessness/sadness.
As reported on Slog in September, the library is paying the Hornall Anderson design firm $365,000 for the rebranding effort. The agency is behind world-leading brands like Marmite (“Think outside the jar”) and white-hat organizations like GE. That $365,000 covers only the cost of hiring Hornall Anderson to suggest and draw up a new brand, which consists of a name, a statement, and a logo. But it does not cover “implementation,” which is the cost of physically switching all library materials—signage, business cards, pamphlets, etc.—to match the new brand.
Since the library is a public entity, I requested all documents related to the library’s “rebranding” effort. I was handed a 700-page stack of e-mails, proposals, and budgets, which is where all of the following information comes from, unless otherwise noted.
If the library decides to fully pursue its “rebrand,” implementing it could cost about $1.7 million.
How do you get to that number? Well, remember that first question on the survey? Say the library does decide to change its name from “The Seattle Public Library” to “Seattle Public Libraries.” According to the “Preliminary Brand Strategy Implementation (2016–17)” budget sheet, the cost of changing exterior signage on all library buildings and automobiles to reflect the new spelling is estimated at $500,000 to $600,000. That number assumes no new fancy logo and no lights lighting up the signs. That’s just the cost of changing the lettering. If the rebranding process leads the library to change its logo and to plaster that logo on all branch buildings and light up those logos so that you can see them, then the estimated $500,000 to $600,000 cost would double. Business cards and other operations materials are estimated at an additional $65,000, and the “internal and external public launch,” i.e., the campaign to increase awareness of the new brand, could cost $75,000.
I want to stress that this is not a done deal. A proposal, based on the survey results, will go before the library board on October 28, and the board can accept all, some, or none of the proposal. Another thing: It’s unclear whether the library would need to use taxpayer dollars to fund any of these “improvements.” In addition to public funds, the library receives funding from a couple of private organizations, namely Friends of the Seattle Public Library and the Seattle Public Library Foundation, among others. An internal budget for the rebranding shows that some of the funding for this project has already been accounted for. The Robert Charles Bunn Seattle Public Library Fund would cover the business cards, and the Seattle Public Library Foundation would cover the cost of the launch. But at this point, the funding source for the largest budget item—swapping out the signs—is TBD.
The foundation already paid Hornall Anderson for the weirdly written survey, so that money is spent. According to a breakdown of costs, there’s a three-step strategy for rebranding: Immerse, Imagine, and Make Real. The survey was the “Primary Consumer Qualitative Research” task in the Immerse phase, and it came with a $65,000 price tag.
The push for the rebranding is coming from Marcellus Turner, Seattle’s city librarian, whose salary is $150,000, according to a 2011 figure reported in the Seattle Times. On September 25 of this year, Turner published a “Message from the City Librarian Regarding the Proposed Rebranding,” which he wrote to address concerns raised by citizens like you and me who were surprised to hear about the rebranding. His message begins with the salutation “Greetings,” which is not the way you say hello to anyone who lives on your planet, and continues in much the same disconnected-sounding vein.
Through a fog of business-speak, Turner’s argument for the rebrand emerges. He says that people are starting to use libraries in a different way. Circulation numbers and visits to the library are declining in Seattle and across the country, and guests are using digital sources more than print sources.
He lists the library’s five-point service priorities (Youth and Family Learning, Technology and Access, Community Engagement, Seattle Culture and History, and Reimagined Spaces), and then claims that the new name and logo and brand statement are a result of doing what the library can to support “the reading and informational needs of our city in a rapidly changing world.”
Nowhere in the message does Turner describe in real terms how spending almost $2 million on lettering and a logo would, for example, help the library serve youths. Nor does he touch on how the rebrand will increase access to library materials and bring in more foot traffic.
The “Message from the City Librarian” is stuffed with fluff and doublespeak. Turner writes: “The Library’s role and value is very strong among our patrons, supporters, and city. Here and in libraries across the country, our work is changing. Nationally and internationally, our professional organizations are working with think tanks and agencies to understand what is happening in libraries, how our role and value can be strengthened, and how to rebrand the profession accordingly.” So is the library’s “role and value… very strong” or does the “role and value” need to be “strengthened”? It’s a cloud of words projecting the illusion of competence and leadership, but it’s unclear what he’s saying. It sounds like he’s calling for a solution to a problem he doesn’t think exists.
People who use libraries on a regular basis are sensitive to this sort of word garbage. When they hear it, they begin to question the motivations and intentions of the person speaking. Does he have a good reason to “rebrand” that he’s just not stating plainly? Does he think we’re dumb? Or does he really believe in this business-speak?
Judging from a number of internal e-mails, Turner believes in the vital necessity to rebrand. In correspondence with board members and donors, he lays out his logic:
Our work is changing and we are finding that how we are connecting/impacting our public and community is changing also. This rebranding is in response to that. In fact, many library systems across the country are doing exactly the same thing; they are looking at their brand and evaluating whether it is truly representative of libraries [sic] evolving role in the community.
And very importantly, the rebranding provides us a better framework to enable us to market to all of those (which are many) who are not using the library because they are not aware of how we are changing and all that we have offered.
Before we go any further: Woof, get thee to an editor. As to the substance of the claim: It’s of course valid to want a hip new logo and slogan that appeals to whatever demographic you’re trying to reach. But why not engage the community by announcing that the library is looking for a new logo, and then hold a competition and have the demographic you’re trying to reach dream one up? Why spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a bunch of corporate marketers who spend their time trying to make black yeast paste seem palatable?
Elsewhere in that internal e-mail, Turner writes that the “The” in “The Seattle Public Library” doesn’t project a sense of inclusivity and suggests “only one idea of what a library is (or can be)—a place for books.” In a draft of his public statement concerning the rebrand, Turner waxes poetic about his love of books on tape and writes about how moved he was when, at a showing of the World Cup matches, he kept hearing people saying, “My library back home never does anything like this.”
Firstly: While it’s true that “the” sounds proprietary, the word “public” is also included in the library’s name, which should allay any fears of exclusivity. I’d even argue that “Seattle Public Libraries” suggests a number of disconnected buildings that are scattered across town, ones that might have their own brand IDs.
Secondly: Sure, the library is more than just books. But the notion that we need another place to watch the game is infuriating. Of course people like to watch games. But there are already thousands of places all over the city that are good for watching sports. Those places have beer, and you can shout loudly in them. You know what you can’t do at those places? Pick up every book written by Audre Lorde and then talk with a librarian about them.
Thirdly: How does a different logo and different letters on the outside of the building allow more people to watch a soccer game inside that building?
Finally, he argues that the new logo suggests that the library has room to expand and that the system is strong because it’s interconnected. To which I say: Describing the way the logo embodies the values of the library does not answer the question of why we should be spending almost $2 million on a rebrand in the first place. That’s so much money to spend on an “s” and a wink.
Since I was unsatisfied with Marcellus Turner’s public and internal responses to this matter, I called him up. He couldn’t be reached directly, so I ended up speaking with Caroline Ullmann, assistant director of communications at Seattle Public Library, who passed my questions up to Turner.
I asked what visitors request the most at the library. He replied that the resource they lack the most is… *drum roll*… time. “I’d say what we hear most often from patrons is their wish that the libraries could be open more hours system-wide,” he wrote in response to my question. “That is a long-term commitment that requires additional staffing and a sustainable source of funding that carries on year after year after year, rather than a one-time fund source.”
Two million dollars isn’t enough to address that issue in full, but surely it’s a start. And surely Turner’s time is better spent bugging donors and board members to figure out a way to raise money so that the doors can be open longer than on trying to fabricate arguments about the powers of rebranding.
Okay, but, so: He doesn’t want to spend $2 million on keeping the doors open longer, mostly because the money doesn’t work that way. So I asked him what else he might want to spend $2 million on. He said, “I view rebranding as an investment in the future of the library. The profession is changing, and we need to change, too. Of course we are about books, but we’re so much more, and that’s the story we’re trying to tell with the proposed rebranding.”
But it’s not at all clear that a rebrand is a good investment in the library’s future, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Gary Kunis, the library’s single largest benefactor and the retired chief science officer at Cisco Systems, claims to have “helped create one of the strongest brands on the planet.” In an e-mail obtained by The Stranger, Kunis encouraged Turner to stop listening to his marketing consultants. Kunis said he doesn’t see the need for changing the name. He also thinks that all the attention on rebranding will make the library look bad: “Once public opinion focuses on the drumbeat of an issue highlighting perceived incompetence or waste of taxpayer dollars, like the current Viaduct replacement or SeaWall replacement projects,” he wrote, “the ‘offender’ finds itself experiencing the Chaos Theory where problems magnify, mutate, and multiply in a random and ugly fashion.” He signed off: “Please rethink this activity.”
Nobody wants the library to descend into chaos theory. But if access to the library for a variety of communities is what Turner is really after, aren’t there easier ways to do it?
My final question to Turner was simply that he explain to me in real terms how changing the library’s logo and lettering will increase foot traffic and circulation. He replied: “The proposed rebranding is one element of what we are doing to make the public aware of all that SPL offers, and the logo and new signage alone won’t accomplish that. Our Service Priorities, new programs, services and collection development, and marketing efforts complete the overall strategy to make more people aware of all we have to offer. The brand is the foundation that helps build that awareness.”
Here again I find myself sneaker-to-wing-tip with a corporate nonanswer. I ask “how” it helps, and he tells me that it helps. How does it help? It’s the “foundation” of helping.
In an e-mail to the library, Don Glickstein, former vice president of Friends of the Seattle Public Library, says that he’s “distressed” about the new logo and branding. Claiming to have been through a number of rebrands in the corporate sector, Glickstein says there are only three reasons for an institution to draw up a new brand: “(1) It’s fundamentally changing its products or role. (2) It’s merged with or divested from another company or institution. (3) It’s been a failure.”
None of those seem to be true about the library. While Turner claims that people are using the library in different ways, that doesn’t mean the product or role of the library is fundamentally changing. The library isn’t merging with another company, nor has the institution been a failure. We wouldn’t have voted to give it $123 million back in 2012 if we thought it was.
But let’s take seriously the phrase that keeps popping up in all of my heavily mediated interactions with my city librarian, the guy who supposedly wants to show how the library brings people together and helps to develop strong, connected communities. Over and over he says, “The profession is changing, and so we must change.” If, however, “the profession is changing” means “people want the library to be a glorified community center, and to satisfy them we need to show the football game,” then the library’s new job is to save the people from themselves. The library shouldn’t be a passive receptor of change but a proud agent of change.
Customers—ahem—potential cardholders—ahem—people aren’t going to be tricked by the magic of apparent brand cohesion. It’s not like they’re choosing between Coke and Pepsi here. There’s one library, it has many branches, and it performs one of the most vital tasks in any municipality: It archives and provides access to all the information we know, gratis.
If Turner wants to raise awareness and access and “engage the community” all at the same time, why not spend the $2 million on direct efforts to do just that? Couldn’t the library partner with organizations such as Hack the CD and help connect young entrepreneurs with the materials they need to start businesses of their own? Why not buy more computers or other materials? Why not institute occasional bonuses for librarians who use their creativity to help the public access the materials in a new way? Why not invite Toni Morrison to read at the main branch and hold a Black Lives Matter demonstration outside the building? Why not dream up new ways to use existing materials to connect new-to-town Seattleites with the Native history of this region? Is all this stuff already happening? If so, I have no idea because the library doesn’t do a great job of publicizing the materials and programing it already has in place! You don’t need a new logo and lettering to do that. You just need to actually engage the community, to step out of the boardroom and into the streets.
The Library Board of Trustees meets on October 28. They’ll have the final say on whether the library should continue to pursue the rebrand and its implementation. In his e-mails, Turner seems convinced that there’s strong community support for this effort. If you’re not part of that community—that is, if you don’t want to see almost $2 million spent on a logo and a bunch of exterior signage—then send all the members of the board an e-mail and say so. Their e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.