The Stranger is the only paper in the city still regularly covering internal library affairs and not just republishing Seattle Public Library press releases, but they haven't made it easy on us. The library board—which hires the city librarian, oversees the SPL's budget, and approves operational changes—schedules its meetings at times when it's inconvenient for ground-level librarians or members of the public to attend.
The minutes of those meetings, which provide crucial information about the board's agenda, are strangely inaccessible to the public for an organization that exists for the sole purpose of providing information freely and efficiently. In tough financial times that have resulted in drastically abbreviated operating hours at many branches in already underserved neighborhoods, the board approved paying the consulting firm Berk & Associates $120,000 for the task of "reenvisioning" the future of the library. Further, The Stranger has been hearing for months from librarians that the library board has been bullying them; they asked not to be identified by name, fearing retribution for speaking up about the current administration.
Clearly, something has to change.
A few weeks ago, I asked Mayor Mike McGinn if he planned to approve the reappointment of Michael Parham, the current president of the library board. The mayor said he hadn't decided yet and encouraged me to interview Parham and advocate one way or the other for his reappointment, the way The Stranger does for political endorsements. Tracking down Parham was a nightmare. I got nothing but combative attitudes from SPL administrative staff, particularly spokeswoman Andra Addison. When I requested an interview with Parham two weeks ago, Addison demanded that I provide the questions I was going to ask him in advance. I refused.
Then last week, Parham unexpectedly announced that he would not seek reappointment. This could be great news for the Seattle Public Library; while the amount of power the mayor's office holds directly over the library is limited, this is a rare opportunity for McGinn to make his mark on the board with a fresh thinker. The board right now is made up entirely of Nickels-era appointees; though they don't create policy (the city librarian does), a dose of McGinn-style transparency would be a wonderful thing.
The mayor should appoint a virtual saint of transparency to the library board this time, someone who's willing to lift the veil of secrecy and acknowledge that the board serves the public. Ideally, he should choose someone who actually understands the day-to-day operations of the library, both as an employee and as a patron. I think it's time to draft Nancy Pearl to the library board: She has the experience, and she's a passionate advocate for SPL. If she refuses, it needs to be someone who's willing to listen to everyone, from janitors to patrons, volunteers, and librarians—and keep the public in the conversation as well.