Not Keeping Quiet
Librarians Speak Out Against Proposed Policies at Seattle Public Library
Original photo by Lara Swimmer
Library Board Meeting
Wed June 24, Central Library, Washington Mutual Foundation Meeting Room 1, level 4, 4:30 pm
The librarians are making some noise. Saying "someone in the outside world should know," a Seattle Public Library (SPL) staffer forwarded The Stranger a series of internal documents proposing policy changes designed to decrease services and extract money from the library's most vulnerable patrons: old people, poor people, immigrants, and children. (The staffer requested to remain anonymous, citing a "sort of 1984 atmosphere at the library these days... morale is low.")
According to the documents—internal e-mails, budgets, and meeting minutes and agendas—the proposed changes include charging $5 for interlibrary loans (when SPL borrows a title from another library system), adding late fees for ESL and children's materials, cutting the number of items a customer can put on hold from 100 to 25, and halving the number of items anyone can check out at one time to 50. The leaked papers also explain the reason for these new policies—increased fines "could result in an estimated $36,000 in annual revenue."
None of the librarians I contacted for comment wanted to be named in this article, but all have an opinion about the new policies: They're bad.
On SPL intranet threads forwarded to The Stranger, one staffer says homebound and bedridden patrons, who only receive services once a month, would be disproportionately hurt by the tighter borrowing limits. "We are frequently their only source of information and entertainment," she adds.
A librarian at a branch of SPL with a great many Spanish-speaking patrons—but not so many Spanish-language materials—believes that charging $5 for interlibrary loans "will seriously inhibit our ability to provide good basic services to new Americans and other non-English speakers." Another laments that SPL has "spent years in outreach... educating parents that SPL is fine-free for children's materials" to "encourage access for all," especially low-income children struggling in school. Another chastises the library for monetizing late fees: "Fines should serve the purpose of educating young patrons and encouraging timeliness, NOT increasing revenue."
A few complaints fall just shy of calling the policies racist, especially language stating that they will "encourage responsibility." One staffer suggests that some immigrants and refugees hold two or three jobs, become overwhelmed with responsibilities, and are already afraid or embarrassed to come back to the library because they returned a book late. Fining ESL and children's books, the staffer says, would only exacerbate the problem.
Nancy Pearl, former executive director of SPL's Washington Center for the Book and current author and NPR book reviewer, says, "The library's in an impossible position, and learning and literacy will suffer for it. Adding new fees will of course reduce reading—it always does. Raising money on the backs of children and immigrants will hurt people with no voice in the political process.
"But what's SPL supposed to do? Our libraries compete for funds with police, fire, road repairs, public health, and everything else on the city budget. The most effective library finances are in those communities with a separate library district, like King County, or where library funding comes off the top, like San Francisco. Seattle needs to move out of the municipal budget fight. The library board should start that work now."
The library board was supposed to discuss and vote on these changes at a meeting on May 27, but after hearing numerous complaints from staff, new city librarian Susan Hildreth asked to postpone the discussion until the following board meeting on June 24. Hildreth wanted to allow time for SPL employees to air their grievances. (The new materials policy seems to further a conservative institutional trend of focusing on problem customers. What the board did approve at the May 27 meeting: a new "rules of conduct" policy designed to push out the homeless, including prohibition of all rolling carts except strollers, the ability to ban violators from a library for two years instead of one, and possible ejection for "appearing to be sleeping.")
Why isn't SPL notifying taxpayers of these changes? Why do frustrated staffers find it necessary to contact the press anonymously? Andra Addison, communications director for SPL, admits that the library provided "public notice but not detailed information" about the materials policy changes. The library, she said, posts all board-meeting agendas on its website and would send out a press release the following week. Three hours after I called Addison, SPL issued a detailed press release about the proposed changes.
Addison disagrees that the changes are punitive. "We'd love to not charge fines, but we can't do that," she says. Circulation at the library has increased 20 percent in the last year, and SPL has to consider new ways of efficiently serving more people with less money. Mayor Nickels asked SPL to cut its budget at least 3 percent in 2009.
Nor does Addison think the fees will be prohibitive: "We raised our fees in 2003, and our circulation is higher than ever." More people are using the library more this year because more people are unemployed, and of course SPL needs to stay within strict budget constraints, but is now the time to penalize groups who have been hit hardest by the recession?
Addison especially bemoans the inter-library loan system, which she says costs an average of $20 to $30 per book: "One that was put through the other day cost $150." She points out that less than 8 percent of inter-library loan requests are for foreign-language materials. She calls interlibrary loan "kind of a supplemental service."
This proposed $5 fee has drawn the most criticism. Becky Norman, the interlibrary loan manager at King County Library System (KCLS), says King County libraries file a similar number of interlibrary loans as SPL—"well over 2,000 [items] a month"—and doesn't charge for those loans unless the lending library requires payment, something that happens only "about 10 percent of the time." Holly Koelling, the director of circulation at KCLS, calls interlibrary loan "an important service."
Staffers weren't just complaining—many had ideas to make money. One suggested charging for interlibrary loans not picked up, or allowing a certain number of loans before a fee kicks in, or fining patrons who never check out items they put on hold.
The window for staff suggestions has passed, but it didn't really matter: None of the SPL staffers' complaints or suggestions have influenced the proposed changes. Addison says the board hasn't set its agenda for the June 24 meeting but will "probably" discuss the new policies. Two SPL employees insist that SPL officials have said the policies "will definitely be voted on at the next board meeting."
Either way, there will be an opportunity for public comment.