This morning, the Seattle Public Library (SPL) announced 180 days of library closures from April 12 to June 2, adding up to nearly 1,500 hours of cuts to a critical public service. All branches will be closed one day per week, with a few exceptions. Madrona-Sally Goldmark, Montlake, and Wallingford will be closed twice a week. The Capitol Hill branch will be closed Sundays and open two hours late Thursdays. The Central Library Downtown and the Ballard, Deldrige, Greenwood, University branches will remain open as usual.

The announcement comes days after SPL closed seven libraries, about a quarter of the system, in one day due to staffing shortages exacerbated by a hiring freeze on all departments except for “essential” positions such as police officers, firefighters, and social workers in the new dual dispatch program. Mayor Bruce Harrell instituted the freeze to prevent deepening the City’s quarter-billion-dollar budget deficit. 

With the green light from the Mayor's office, SPL will use these next eight weeks to hire 12 more mostly temporary staff members and then reassess the service cuts. SPL spokesperson Laura Gentry said she could not guarantee the libraries will return to normal service if they hire 12 staffers by June 2. 

Gentry emphasized SPL’s respect for its partnership with the Mayor’s office in this decision to cut service. The Mayor funds 60% of the library’s budget, so it’s important to maintain a good relationship, but some library workers wish the higher-ups would take a more adversarial position.

“[SPL] doesn’t want to burn bridges with the Mayor, but the Mayor is burning bridges with us when he closes our libraries instead of funding them,” said a library worker at a small branch who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

Workers who spoke to The Stranger worried that these cuts serve as a “dress rehearsal” for an austerity budget from the Mayor’s office later this year. 

1,500 Hours of Public Good Gone

The City is denying Seattleites 1,500 hours of learning, checking out books, applying for jobs, talking with neighbors, sheltering from bad weather, and, though librarians should not be de facto social workers, perhaps overdose prevention, workers said. 

“The Mayor recognizes the critical importance of library access and the role libraries play supporting Seattle communities,” Mayoral spokesperson Jamie Housen said in a text. “We are working closely with SPL to address staffing challenges and create schedule stability for patrons and workers.”

Gentry told The Stranger that SPL tried to be strategic in its closures by staggering them, spreading them geographically, trying to protect important programming, and maintaining service at high-volume libraries. The libraries will still manage to operate above pre-pandemic levels, Gentry said. 

Gentry said SPL has dealt with staffing issues for a long time, far predating the hiring freeze. Typically, the department operates at a 4% vacancy rate, which amounts to about 25 to 30 positions out of an authorized 705. As of April 10, the SPL carries 67 vacant positions for a rate of 9.6%, more than double the normal amount. 

As a non-executive department with its own hiring authority, SPL technically does not have to abide by the Mayor’s hiring freeze, but Chief Librarian Tom Fay instituted a freeze to keep in step with the Mayor, Gentry said. 

SPL and Harrell agreed on 12 exemptions to the non-executive department’s self-imposed hiring freeze. Those exemptions would bring SPL to a vacancy rate of 7.8%, leaving 55 positions still open. Gentry said the department will hire two regional managers who will likely join SPL permanently and 10 other librarian positions that will likely be temporary. 

Gentry said SPL does not want to hire too many people permanently because they do not know how their budget will change when Harrell unveils his draft budget later this year in the face of a large revenue shortfall. She could not comment on SPL’s budget requests for 2025-2026. 

Library in Limbo

Gentry also could not speak to what the City should do to pay for the library to stay fully operational, at least to the standards approved in the 2019 library levy, which pays for 30% of SPL’s budget. More than 70% of voters approved the levy with the top-billed intention to keep all libraries open Sunday at noon. For the next eight weeks, Beacon Hill, Broadview, Capitol Hill, High Point, Lake City, Magnolia, and Rainier Beach branches will be closed at that time. 

Gentry suggested that concerned patrons could donate to the Seattle Public Library Foundation to support local libraries, but some library workers told The Stranger that calls for charity don’t cut it. 

“This is super disappointing, and it’s important to remember that this is a choice,” said a library worker from the Central Library. “Service cuts are not some naturally occurring phenomenon.”

The library worker suggested the city council revisit the seemingly abandoned report from the Progressive Revenue Stabilization Workgroup to find ways to fund struggling programs. The council has been very shy to call for new taxes on big business or the wealthy—probably because that’s who got them elected

But they sure did make a point in a March meeting of the Libraries, Education and Neighborhoods committee to talk about how much they love libraries. The committee members shared anecdotes about their childhood memories at libraries, including Chair Maritza Rivera, who said the library was the only place her mom would let her go alone in the “inner city.” Rivera, self-proclaimed library-lover, did not respond to my request for comment about the closures. 

Another library worker told The Stranger that people will be pissed that the libraries are closing —“Everybody loves the library! What the hell are you doing?”— but she said their anger should not stop there. The Mayor has shown he doesn’t care about hugely popular, critical public services, so prepare to fight for every single City program you care about come budget season.