Inside the Box

Corporate Euphemisms, Angry Librarians, Accusations of Bullying: The Tense Battle for Seattle Public Library's Future


I'd say the library staff is 75 percent demoralized and 25 percent still plugging away cheerfully. Said as an SPL employee... but I don't think most people in the public really care whether we're happy or not. Because "hey! we have jobs!!!" And most people have no idea how stressful it can be working with the public day after day and the backbreaking work the clerical staff does to keep the books moving. I know I didn't until I started working in the library. Hell, one of my best friends still smirks when I tell her how stressful it is. So she's dropping down my list of friends......
Thanks Paul for the informative article. I don't doubt that there's plenty of librarians who are upset. I'm also sure that there's plenty of patrons who feel the same. I hope the administrators read your article and will begin to really listen to the public.

One thing that really upsets me personally is that at small libraries, like the Capital Hill Branch, it's uncomfortable to be inside the building at all, because there are books and DVDs being processed and stacked very loudly. I don't even sit and read at the library, but even just browsing the library is a nightmare because it feels like the staff is taking out their anger on the patrons. That's just one thing the management needs to consider.

I realize that peace and quiet are things that are hard to maintain in a public institution, and there's a big demand for computers and job seekers, but the way things are now is just ridiculous.
It is sad that our own city librarian seems to think we can be replaced by google and basically all we do is pull books for holds!

I guess we should just get rid of all our: story times, home work help, book clubs, author visits, teen programs, free SAT prep, computer classes, job searching classes, ESL classes, Global Reading Challenge, Summer Reading Program, book lists, both our blogs, Chat and Text reference, data base classes, school/curriculum support, readers advisory (reading suggestions), research help for students, resume classes, book talking at schools, all music/art programming, banned books programs, the teen produced film festival, helping non native speakers learn English and navigate citizenship, movie series about global topics, cultural programming for different ethnic backgrounds, research instruction, genealogy research instruction and support, small business support, historical research, free tax help, book displays on tons of topics, and general reference including how to find what you are looking for, where to find what you are looking for, or help figuring out what you are looking for plus many more things I am forgetting right now. All of those things are done, hosted or coordinated by librarians but none of them are apparently on the radar to our city librarian.

If her future visioning of The Seattle Public Library is for it to become a free nextflicks type warehouse than we do not need any librarians, hell we don’t need most of the administrators, staff and we especially don’t need a city librarian for that matter either. The mayor could just hire a warehouse manger and as long as we had people to put the books on the shelves and clean the place we would not need anyone else. Of course it would not be a community library but no one uses us for that anymore, right? Then how come our circulation numbers, door counts, and programming numbers for all ages of patrons just keeps exponentially growing every year? If n one needs us then why are we busier then ever and can barely keep up with the demand on all our services? It seems like many Seattle folks use us for more than a warehouse. Maybe the city librarian should try working on a desk in some of our branches to see what we do for the greater Seattle community.

Thanks Paul for writing such an illuminating article!
Thank you Paul for your article. I'm glad to know that certain frustrations felt by the staff are being heard by somebody and getting out there for all to hear about. Yes, there is some bullying that's been going on and it's created a lot of stress and tension and it can be felt everywhere in the building. It's really amazing to see what goes on and the amount of stuff that is tolerated as compared to what would be tolerated in the private sector.
As a response to Chloe; the noise you refer to is because our workload of requested items (items the public ask for every hour of every day)keeps growing and we are expected to do more work in the same alloted time. We (staff) are also frustrated by a clunky database, a frustrating and error prone webpage and self check out stations that fail in some capacity half the time. With the downturn in the economy the library is expected to be the public version of Netflix, Napster and Amazon. Well, we're not.
I'm sorry to hear that staff have taken their anger and frustration out on the public at some locations. We should always provide professional service. That should never happen, but we are human and everyone hits the wall at some point.
It has been my experience that my coworkers work very hard to make each patron happy.
What a great article! I do not work nor patron the library but I do hear about the changes and the unhappiness of the people who work very hard to make the library a great place for patrons and workers alike. I am saddened to know that people go to work there to pay the rent only, that the joy in the job has gone. It is unfortunate that higher ups make decisions that are hurting the library and then don't seem to see the error of their ways and make adjustments accordingly. I hope that the mayor takes a look at what is going on and makes an informed judgment that perhaps may bring some enlightenment to the community. Then perhaps something might change to make the library a better place to patron and to work...
I want to thank librarian #23 for their comment, which provides a fitting reminder for both the public and the library leadership of all that our librarians do, or try to do, for us. I know you're not all perfect, and that a few of you should probably find other work, but on the whole I've always felt that librarians are a very good deal, filling so many important roles and functions that otherwise fall between the cracks. It seems a shame that there should be so much disregard for librarianship from our so-called city librarian and her cabinet.
Thank you Paul for your article. As a former employee of SPL, I completely understand the bullying my administration complaints. There is one administrator in particular who I have seen walk around like picking fights with her employees like a little Napolean for no reason.

Lady Napolean -- if you are so unhappy why don't you find a job where you don't have to make everyone else as miserable as yourself?
Amazing how quickly people forget. The previous City Librarian was a two faced tyrant who couldn't be bothered to remember the names of many of her staff, openly played favorites and who "teased" staff in public about their looks and their wardrobe. Yet I never heard any of these things spoken about except in whispers. Any staff input in the past was almost completely illusionary. Meaningless committees set up as window dressing. 3 "reorganizations" in under 1 year which served to concentrate authority in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Where were all these stressed out unhappy people then?
Passive Aggressive Behavior Disorder seems to be rampant at the library (and The Stranger, for that matter, except for "2k"). How to determine if you are suffering from this Disorder,symptoms include:

1. Contradictory and inconsistent behavior—An individual with passive-aggressive personality disorder may appear enthusiastic to carry out others’ requests, but he purposely performs in a manner that is not useful and sometimes even damaging.

2. Intentional avoidance of responsibility. Some behaviors that may be used to avoid responsibility include:

a. Procrastination—to delay or postpone needlessly and intentionally
b. Deliberate inefficiency—purposefully performing in an incompetent manner
c. Forgetfulness
d. Feelings of resentment toward others
e. Stubbornness
f. Argumentative, sulky, and hostile, especially toward authority figures
g. Easily offended
h. Resentful of useful suggestions from others
i. Blames others
j. Chronically impatient
k. Unexpressed anger or hostility

Most of us working at the library are grateful for our jobs, grateful to be PAID to work for the greater good of our community, and tired of the constantly unhappy among us. I am a long time employee, and no, I am not management.
Happy Library Employee, try working at the downtown library and we'll see how happy you still are, because I'm betting that you work in at a branch and don't see what goes on outside of your little library.
I have worked at the Central Library for over 7 years and I am happy with the leadership and direction of the library. There are some very unhappy and very vocal staff, and there are also MANY staff who are relatively content with the place - or at least who are willing to work with the system. Change is always very difficult for people and sometimes it brings out the worst in them. Others are more comfortable with change and do not fear it. What's happening at SPL is a microcosm of the changes in the country - some folks are acting out, but most are trying to make it work.
Interesting impetus for this article: "A number of librarians have contacted The Stranger anonymously because they think the public needs to be informed that they are unhappy with SPL leadership." They're unhappy? I brand them COWARDS! They have a union that represents them, vigorously. They enjoy job protections and benefits, and, of course, good pay. How weak of them cry to a journalist out of personal fear of retribution. Get another job and leave these open for other librarians who will happily take them. Working for the public is not easy, but I have no sympathy for these anonymous complainers. And this article certainly doesn't create any compassion for this particular set of librarians. IF YOU DON'T LIKE YOUR JOB - LEAVE IT. Get out of MY library, not yours. Go to the private sector, you babies! See how long you last there.
I am also a long time Branch/Central employee who is satisfied with Susan's leadership. She is much more aware of what we all do than her predecessor, and if you ever spend any time with her, she engages in conversation about workflow. Without the support of our city librarian and assistant directors, all the items listed by Librarian #23 would never have happened (It shocked me that my colleagues would honestly think she said that all we do is pull books from the shelves).

I also disagree with the statistics provided by crabby. Yes, some people are unsettled because of changes to their workplace, but it is a handful that is vocal and spreading their negativity because they feel as if they can no longer communicate with management. So many of you read this article as if it's all fact; journalists have the talent of writing up a story that is believable. Do not believe every word you read until you have checked it for accuracy. Don't forget that the [bracketed] words are inserted by the author and not a direct quote. Susan's comment about librarians pulling books is an accurate observation, especially out in the branches. Sometimes librarians do have to help out when the clerical staff are busy.

We are in a situation of tightening budget; it is only expected that we have to work harder for fewer dollars so that we can continue to provide great service to our patrons. We are considered very lucky in that very few of us were laid off in comparison to the closing of libraries all across the country. Our administration has worked hard to ensure that we keep as many employees as possible.

I have faith that Susan and the rest of management are working towards our mission. In case you have need a reminder, you can read it here:…

Change is difficult for everyone, but necessary due to budget cuts coupled with a growth in circulation and capital expenses. Her Google comment is probably also taken out of context. It is true that Google can answer many questions. What it really means for librarians is that our job has evolved. People no longer need us to answer questions, but they still need us to guide them in the right direction. It means that what we do at the library needs to be changed. She is right that we need to right size. Our patrons have a different need than they did a decade ago. The Internet has grown exponentially in the past few years and it is now a part of everyday life, rather than something for the technologically advanced.

I think we will be the greatest asset to the citizens of Seattle by pooling our energy together and focus on the positive, rather than negative. All that energy could be used to brainstorm ideas for improving manager-staff relationships, coping with change, etc. I often converse with my manager over workflow and organizational issues. It has been a positive experience even if sometimes my ideas don't go anywhere. I encourage everyone to do the same. If for some reason you are not comfortable with your manager, talk to your colleagues, talk to HR. There are plenty of people who are interested in our ideas. We just have to be able to accept that sometimes they will make decisions that we don't like. We have to trust that they are looking at the bigger picture so that we can continue to support our patrons in a sustainable way.
As a Ballard Library user, I am always amazed at how busy yet helpful the staff are. They haven't a moment to chat, yet they make time for all of us clamoring for help. The other day, a librarian kept my toddler safe while I checked out books; today a clerk helped me with special check out requests. They go above and beyond reasonable expectations. This is a big thank you to everyone at Ballard Library!
On the other hand, I have noticed changes, some of which seem to use budget cuts as an excuse for management by fiat: adding administrative staff seems absurd when you are moving people around and cutting librarian positions. All you need are savvy schedule people if you are concerned about the impact of future cuts.
And why alienate heavy users by cutting reserves from 100 to 25, especially when you claim there are so few of us? I bet those who promoted this do not work with the public. I check out less materials now, so that is a statistic which will drop. Adding fines to children's materials=hurting poor families who cannot afford to pay overdue fines. Again, less items circulating.
True, people like to complain and people in bureaucracy complain a lot. Usually with lots of justification. The happy library staffer (see #10) is mean and hostile. Listing attributes of complainers (a to k...) makes you sound a little nuts and not at all happy. The commenter who seconded with a long statement which sounds like a bureaucratic manifesto is also not listening.
I read about a new book (REWORK) and blog (Signal vs Noise), both focused on new rules of management, one of which is stop all the damn meetings; another is to forget all that strategic planning. Reward action!
If Ballard staffers are unhappy, they don't take it out on us users. Management should stop blaming things on staff and listen to them and regular users, even when it's what you do not want to hear. Times are tough, but never tell your employees they are lucky to have the job. Reminds me of the 60s when you were told to shut up and love your country or leave it.
Happy Library User
It has been my experience that my co-workers are mostly concerned with impacts on the public when new policies and major up-heaving changes are implemented and not made available for feed-back beforehand. Currently changes occur, and neither the staff, nor the public seem to be represented in the decision making process.

When cutbacks are as direly necessary as they have become, the administration could use its staff as a resource, as we have a strong institutional memory, and ability to see negative implications of coming policy and operating changes. Armed with the right kinds of information gleaned this way, these difficult changes could at least be alleviated, to some extent.

We, all of us, understand that the city budget is grim and we are feeling a sense of low morale because of these recent changes imposed upon the public and the library staff, alike. However it seems that uninformed decisions are being made, willy-nilly without regard to more constructive and creative ways to solve and handle these issues. The edicts just come from on high, and the decision making process has not been disclosed. The fact that all this happened in a vacuum, makes the current climate seem like a punishment.

The library is a public institution paid for by your tax dollars. It is supposed to be egalitarian in nature, but although the staff strives to maintain this impartial equality, nobody seems to be able to make comments, for good or ill on decisions being made in their (the public's) name. And when we do, it is not deemed relevant, or worthy.

Thank-you to commenter 15 for your support!! And thank-you Peter for your continued coverage of this issue.

For me, as a long time employee, there is great joy in working at the library, for our community and with some of the best coworkers in the world.

It seems that the strategic plan should be about what kind of institution we want to be to serve the public and function well internally. If we work collaboratively and respectfully with all involved--patrons and staff--and invite input and discussion in an open way, we will understand where we are and where we can go.

The future of the library does involve what products and services we will provide--physical items like books and the digital access we are only beginning to explore, as well as all those services someone mentioned above--programs, outreach and more.

How we connect people to these resources is also important. Frequently patrons tell us we are more helpful than the workers at another library system and they like to come here even though the other library system has more "stuff'. How we give service does matter!

Each of us who gives service to the public IS the library at that moment of interaction and can make a lasting impression on a library user. And every day we use creativity to determine what someone actually wants and how we can find that information or book title.

Patrons are frequently amazed at what we can find. (We are even find things on Google that the patrons couldn't find!)

The staff provides that creative spark of fun and imagination that makes the library come alive and connects our city to reading and information.

As for internal functioning, there is much wisdom, knowledge and experience among the rank and file staff. They are smart, alert and caring in doing their jobs. They are creative thinkers-- problem solvers who have much to offer from the front line experience of day to day operations.

There has always been a sense that the folks on the administration floor are not that in tune with actual experience with patrons and tend to make decisions that show that removal from the day-to-day. Most of the suggestions about improvements that I hear from coworkers involve changes that would make things better or easier for library users. Of course, those changes would be more convenient for us because we would have what people want and we like to provide that!

Listening to staff suggestions for this strategic plan is mostly about getting feedback on what patrons have asked for or seem to need that they might not articulate themselves. It is because patron needs are important to us that we want to be included in the discussion in a substantive way and not dismissed.

I am deeply saddened by these tensions at the library. The library I participate in is full of life and excitement about books and ideas and information and exploration and connections and FUN! It is about rich interactions with our patrons--well off, poor, immigrants, native born, young, old, funny, grumpy, quirky--and supporting them in meeting the needs that brought them to the library in the first place. So many people come in and "confess" that they have not used the library in years. We are always here waiting to welcome them back!

Every day people express appreciation for us not just for getting them what they asked for, but also for being who we are when we are with them. (One man tells me I am a blessing every time he comes in!)

I am deeply grateful for the patrons who share not only book and information suggestions with me, but also their lives.

I want to work for an institution that has excellent and appropriate resources and also supports people's access to and use of these resources in a positive and life affirming way.

I pray for healing of our beloved library and that a vision of the way forward will develop that really will support the people of Seattle in having a library that meets their needs and that functions in a collaborative, creative way for the good of all involved.
OK, we get it, they're going to gut the branch libraries to keep all the non-citizen corporate greedheads happy with their Ivory Tomb of Glass downtown central library.

Totally in the WRONG direction.
@3 nailed it very nicely, I think.
If you are a librarian and think you can actually be replaced by Google, then perhaps you should find a new line of work. Thanks for a great summery of what our libraries are all about.

I do think, however, that it is time for the old guard to let go. I would imagine that a lot of the underlying anger stems from changes in the profession itself, along with really poor management decisions(a library advisory board with no librarians? What the fuck kind of Mickey Mouse management is that?)The digital library is an idea whose time has come, it is shocking to see that there are librarians who are still resisting the inevitable.

I don't understand why they added a new layer of management. Are they trying to replicate the cluster system of the KCLS?

There should also be a rule that all managers/administrators in the SPL have to work one shift a week on the floor with the rest of the plebes. Too often they become removed from the very real problems faced by the rank and file. Just saying.
My family frequents the SPL system and I would like to thank the librarians for their dedication. Our lives would be impoverished without your service. My deepest happiness comes from the education available to me. We are so lucky to live here. Thank you.
Librarian #23 @ 3 provides an excellent potential list of potential cuts. Perhaps if we were to cut all these activities, or at least all of them that the library wasn't already doing 25 years ago, we could return to a sustainable model that fufills the core library mission of giving citizens access to books.
Gosh this is - ahem - really interesting. You see, funny thing - there's a librarian who works for the library with the same name as commenter #22, namely me, and I just started getting emails from colleagues who have been following this thread, asking me what I meant by my comment here. So let me throw in a quick note so that library staff know this was not made by the librarian with that name.

Indeed, I think many of the services raised in #3's post not only reflect the core values of public librarianship going back to its very origins (citizenship, early and continuing literacy, education, a safety net for the disenfranchised, and a key contributor to the community's literary and cultural life), but I know they are highly valued all across our great diversity of patrons. Children's story times, assistance for new citizens, supporting students, helping patrons find information or just a good book to read - these are not frills. These are at the core of what we do, and what public libraries are.

As a side note, the "Digital Divide" mentioned in the article is jargon, yes, but it denotes a very real situation that is still quite stark even here in Seattle, which is that not everybody enjoys the same access to the online world that most of us in the middle class blithely assume we do. As more and more of our personal, professional and political lives are accessed via the media of computers and the Internet, it becomes that much more crucial that citizens in a democracy enjoy that access. Believe it or not, not everyone in our fair city has access to a computer. Our city's public libraries continue to play a huge role in bridging that gap for thousands of people each day. Jokes about people looking at movies/porn in the library will now commence, but ask yourself: do you really want to live in a city where your personal circumstances block you from the entire online universe, and all that it contains? Of course not. So this too is a core service that libraries provide.

I really hadn't intended to comment here until the odd circumstance of seeing my doppelganger in #22, but now I'm out here let me say that I think there are some good arguments made in favor of a more open and inclusive system of governance in helping the library meet its goals and serve the public. I have no comment on the article itself.

Finally, I count myself among the Happy Employees of the library, grateful every day for the work I get to do, and the people I get to work for and with: librarianship truly is a wonderful career where we get to help people pretty much all day, and I only hope that we can all work together to preserve what is best in public libraries for our city, while discovering better ways to serve you and meet your needs. Not everyone will be happy with every thing that libraries do and are, but I have seen so many of our citizens discover their library anew over the past few years and the economic downturn, and most of them seem pretty ecstatic about what they find. Thanks.
Paul--The article is interesting. But it seems to totally miss the major thing that's happened in the last two years, the economic meltdown. I think the library is doing a wonderful job in spite of what is going on around it. Don't believe me? Just go in any branch at any hour and notice how packed the place is. How many people are using the computers, reading the magazines, etc. This is one of the most vital institutions in Seattle. As for the effort to take the pulse of how people use and feel about the library, I'm also a bit confused. Are you saying that they shouldn't be doing this sort of community participation. As I regular user I can say that there are many institutions in this town that are broken, SPL just isn't one of them. Can they improve? Sure. But they start from a very good place.
As an SPL employee, I see how the branches are being fleeced of librarians in order to staff the Central library. Librarians in the branches regularly put in 7-hour daily desk shifts, while public contact at Central can be limited to as few as two on-desk hours. Adult service librarian hours at some branch libraries have been cut altogether or slashed by half or more. SPL needs to equalize the distribution of librarians starting NOW.
Agreed. The last thing any organization needs is a "leader" who claims their organization is obsolete and needs "dumbing down". For all the faults that Deoborah Jacobs had, at least her love and respect for libraries was as obvious as Susan's disdain for the same is.

And there's a real male librarian that goes by "Guybarian" on this site? Apparently you're so happy because nobody's bothered to tell you what a retard you are.
I broke out in sweats when I read your article because it all sounded so familiar. I lived through this nightmare when I worked for San Jose Public Library in California. I was Head of Reference for the Main Library for ten years but when a new administration came in headed by Jim Fish everything started to change. I don't hate change nor do I resist improving the work place but I hate the corporate mentality that spends lots of money on consultants and programs to turn the library into a bookstore. There was "marketing," lots of signs with generic names like "question answering section" and "magazines" (instead of Periodicals). We were told to call patrons "customers" and the fewer professional librarians around, the better. According to Jim Fish, who told me this himself, "librarians are an impediment between the "customer" and the information."
I had worked for the library system for fifteen years at that point and tried to stick it out another five years but those were the worst five years of my career. I finally retired in 1996, the same year Jim Fish decided he had done enough damage and he moved on to another library back east.
All I can say to the librarians in Seattle is get yourself a good union representative before you get shoved out by the "nattering nabobs" of management.

Lenora P. Blouin
I don't know enough about the library system in Seattle to have an opinion about the article, but as a heavy consumer of the library I am a big fan of the SPL and the great people I meet when I get my books. Thank you.
I'm glad Guybrarian (23) made the comment on the digital divide. As he says, it's a real and important issue, and it actually has strong implications for how a library should function. If the library's goal is to reach out to those who are not networked up 24/7, then that means it should focus on (a) paper books, (b) outreach, and (c) introduction to specific, useful online services. Libraries should not aim for full conversion to digital, because that would alienate those on the other side of the digital divide.
Anyone with a brain who looks at this article and the comments can see what is happening: intelligent caring librarians and staff, happy or otherwise, being sold out, pushed around and victimized by a bunch of clueless stuffed shirts who don't seem to know what the hell the library is there for or how stupid they sound when the simper about 'right sizing' and the populism of post-its, together with some sycophantic climbers and fascist wannabes. The current executives are clearly happy to be gutting the place and stabbing their own people in the back, while fleecing the public and wasting money on outside consultants and other bullshit shrines to their egos. Just like when the built that ridiculously overdone main library - all flash and no substance - where the librarians struggle in vain to run an actual useful library amidst all the overblown distracting nonsense. Now we've blown our wad on Deborah's folly, we've called in this charmless, clueless budget-slasher from California. Horrible, and unforgivable. Cut out these highly paid bureaucrats and keep the librarians and shelvers, who are more than capable of keeping the place going.
How about instead of hiring a consultant firm, hiring a team of MBAs to assess the current library system? It's the same things hospitals need to do, instead of having union meetings about how the union thinks staffing and funding should be handled, and inefficiency continues to reign. Surely there is a better and more productive way for the library to spend $120K.

Someone with clear vision needs to be making decisions, not holding focus groups for what a handful of people think is useful.

And how was this event publicized? I'm on the SPL e-mail list, and I don't recall seeing the event in any of the event notifications (or if it was included, it wasn't highlighted).

For the record, I use the Central branch because it's most convenient. Though, I rarely spend time doing anything other than picking up books that I put on hold (even if they were in stock). Especially in winter, the Central branch is overrun with homeless people, which makes the library a public health hazard (the first time I went to the library (after years of not), I sat in the Living Room area -- which was astounding at how it was 80% populated by homeless people, and men who would walk past and stare and mutter at me (now that's an inviting experience...); another time, I had about 30 minutes before meeting friends, so I took my laptop to the library and went online, and in the medium-sized area I was sitting, there were at least three clearly ill homeless people coughing and sneezing without covering their mouths; another time, I found feces on the floor of the [ladies] bathroom stall, as someone clearly didn't think the toilet was convenient).