Christine Marie Larsen

Seattle Public Library is at a crossroads. About a year and a half after the completion of the Libraries for All initiative that saw the SPL system expand to 26 branches across the city, and a few months after budget cuts brought more than half of those branches down to an anemic, five-day-a-week schedule, the system suffers from a complex layering of crises. The Library Board of Trustees is attempting to reimagine the library for a future it considers to be more about information than physical books while balancing the system's $50 million annual budget. City Librarian Susan Hildreth is spearheading a rebranding program that includes surveys, focus groups, and an added advisory board. Meanwhile, many librarians feel unrepresented by management, and some fear retribution for speaking their minds against new policies and restructuring.

The first public sign of SPL's desire to rebrand came on March 1, when the Central Library hosted the first of five events titled "Citywide Conversations: Help Plan the Future of the Library." The events were the first phase of a reenvisioning campaign the library board began immediately after the completion of the Libraries for All initiative to prepare the library for the changing face of information technology in the early 21st century. Librarians wearing name tags stood around a handful of large rectangular signs made of foam core. Several dozen library patrons milled around the signs, figuring out what to do. At one sign, a librarian handed out circle stickers, which patrons were supposed to affix to the library branches they use the most. Another sign asked people to mark whether they were more interested in physical materials or electronic media.

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On other signs, patrons could stick Post-it notes with their answers to various questions. Under "What innovative methods can libraries use to provide physical content?" someone wrote "Maybe Ebooks. Maybe." Under "What innovative methods can libraries use to provide digital content?" someone wrote "Google Books links," which is a useful suggestion, and "Helping bridge the Digital Divide," which is not. (What is the "Digital Divide"? What is on either side? What happens if you fall in?) The answers to "What's the best role for the library in the age of streaming media, the Kindle, and the iPhone?" were "Ignore these, please" and "Wait a decade." Several people want a Belltown branch of the Seattle Public Library. Others want the reduced hours to be restored or even expanded. To the question "What consumer product could the Library learn from in terms of creating a well-­recognized identity (branding)?" someone wrote "Apple—Iphone or Ianything!"

One patron, clearly frustrated by the corporate-­style ideating feel of the session, was complaining to a librarian about the fact that she felt unnoticed by the librarians at her local branch. The librarian responded: "That's great feedback. Thanks for letting me know that," and then handed a circle sticker to the next person in line.

Hildreth has been the city librarian for about a year. The job description boils down to basically ensuring that everyone—from patrons to librarians to the library board—is communicating and happy. Hildreth seems pleased with how the five "Citywide Conversations" went, and the fact that they drew out "a little under 300 people. This certainly isn't representing the entire population of the city, but we had a wide variety of people."

When asked about the corporate tone of the events (which were designed by consulting firm Berk & Associates for $120,000 and paid for by SPL's supporting nonprofit the Seattle Public Library Foundation, which mostly supports free public programming and new acquisitions, to the tune of about $2 million per year), Hildreth responds that she wanted it to be less of a time commitment than, say, a town-hall format. Many people only stayed for 15 or 20 minutes, focusing only on subjects that interested them. SPL spokeswoman Andra Addison added that the businesslike format was a way "to think outside the box" and to provide "interesting service models. If it felt businesslike, we wanted it to be accessible. That's why we used the Post-it notes."

Hildreth can't say yet just what ideas have come from the "Citywide Conversations" program, but two weeks ago, she appointed a 19-person volunteer Strategic Planning Advisory Committee to interpret the program's results and present strategies based on the findings to the library board. Hildreth says she intended the advisory committee to feature a wide variety of city leaders. It does read like a who's who of Seattle's business community, with executives tied to Amazon, Vulcan, Safeco, Microsoft, dot-com start-ups, and real-estate firms. There are also representatives from University of Washington (a student and a teacher) and leaders of charitable organizations (such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind).

Hildreth resists any attempt to frame the advisory committee as being overly corporate-minded, first pointing to Saadia Hamid, site coordinator of the Parent-Child Home Program at Neighborhood House. "She's not an administrator," Hildreth says. "She's a program provider." Hildreth has individual explanations for why Seattle's big businesses are represented. She says that when she recruited Amazon's director of author and publisher relations, Jon Fine, "he said, 'I don't want to be construed as the Amazon person' on the committee." She admits that Nick Hanauer "is a venture capitalist," but he's "also an individual who has really strong views about where the world is going digitally." Urban Visions' Jeff Schoenfeld represents "downtown business interests... because the Central Library is a key of activity and a revenue generator downtown."

When asked why she didn't include a librarian on the committee to provide perspectives of what day-to-day SPL employees need or believe should be added to service, Hildreth says she didn't want an internal perspective to influence the committee. "That's why we don't have [library] board members on the committee," she says.

The advisory committee isn't the only place where librarians feel silenced, though. In recent months, SPL employees have taken to anonymously posting comments on blogs to air their grievances about recent shifts in policy and what they perceive as a newfound institutional inattentiveness to the needs of many patrons. SPL employees stormed the web in protest when the December 30 edition of American Libraries magazine praised Hildreth and the library board for being "inspiring" and "ambitious."

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. Common complaints include anger at the creation of a new level of middle management while entry-level positions are cut and hours are shortened; a lack of librarian input on planning, restructuring, and budget decisions; fear of retribution for negative comments (even if the comments are delivered internally, through proper channels); a lack of communication with the library board; and a long-term plan to replace qualified librarians with volunteers and paraprofessionals.

One librarian bemoans, "They created a whole new layer of administration—three regional managers" working out of the Central Library who "report to one assistant director representing all the branches." Many librarians agree that the upper management of the library should be a prime target for Mayor McGinn's aspirations to cut 200 executives from city government. "There are one or two executives at SPL who could go and there would be near universal rejoicing, as they are essentially bullies," one librarian says. (The word "bully" comes up a lot from the librarians.)

Hildreth concedes, "I could see that somebody could say, 'Well, I used to report to the assistant director of branches and now I have to report to my regional manager who reports to the assistant director of branches.'" But she says the new management structure was necessary in order to move librarians around when budget cuts hit, rather than lay them off. "Is that going to be a structure we have forever? I don't know."

An internal staff survey is planned for June, once SPL finishes processing the results of the "Citywide Conversations." Hildreth says patrons should be heard first, then librarians: "We need to listen to the community first, and then adjust to that."

Hildreth answers the fears that, as one librarian put it, "there is clearly a long-term plan afoot to reduce the number of professionals at SPL," by talking about the changing role of librarians. But what she says does not sound very reassuring: "Most people find what they need to know through Google. We were the gatekeepers to knowledge. Well, we're not the gatekeepers anymore." She continues, "I don't think we're going to have an effort to decrease the librarians we have. I think we're going to have to look at right-sizing. The [future] additions [to staff] might be at a clerical or paraprofessional level. It's not the best use of your taxpayer dollars to have someone who's trained as a professional librarian end up [just] pulling [requested] books."

The anonymous librarians provided The Stranger with a dozen anecdotes about employees being lectured about or strongly discouraged from making internal statements that could be construed as negative. "There wouldn't be retribution" for negativity, Hildreth responds. But complaints should come through the union leadership, she added. "Not that I wouldn't talk to anybody, but some of the concerns that you're talking to us about have come to us in that way. I would say the library board is very interested in what the staff is thinking. The staff is perfectly welcome to come to the board if they wanted to." Although "they would certainly have to do it on their own time" and not on the clock.

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Hildreth says there was no time to get input from street-level librarians when the budget cuts had to be implemented. And she explains that budget concerns couldn't be shared with staff earlier due to Mayor Nickels, whose "budget process was completely confidential. Mayor Nickels didn't want departments getting a lot of input on budgets." She says Mayor McGinn hasn't yet indicated how open he wants future budget processes to be.

Librarians have their own hopes for McGinn. The mayor doesn't have much official power over the library—he approves the budget and appoints new members to five-year terms on the five-person library board—but they would like him to advocate for them. One librarian says, "It's hard for someone in my position not to fantasize about the mayor pulling Susan Hildreth aside at some future meeting and saying, 'I hear your staff is not at all happy with how things are being run lately. Not enough communication? Something about bullies? Might [be worth] watching.' It'd be nice to imagine there was pressure, however subtle, from above, for her to clean house a bit." recommended