Yesterday for lunch I had a burrito with a side of "Annabel Lee" by Edgar Allan Poe. I went to bed listening to the New York Times' coverage of the Great Seattle Fire of 1889.
Every two to six days, a Seattle Public Library staffer—from bookshelvers to librarians and everyone in between—will dial up the library's Lit Line and make a recording of a poem or short story or an article from the libraries newspaper archives. It's also all available in Spanish. Anyone can call in and listen.
The Lit Line (206-386-4656) isn't necessarily a newfangled idea, SPL librarian Robin Rousu told me. It's pretty old. Rousu has been a librarian with SPL for 15 years. She used to run the Dial-a-Story program where kids were encouraged to call a number to get a story read to them. That program was built around the idea of landlines. So, naturally, it's since faded from relevance. But, the infrastructure and the idea were perfect for the COVID-19 era.
While we're relying on technology more than ever during the pandemic, COVID-19 has done an excellent job of exposing the gaps in internet access and connectivity. It's also left people craving human connection.
All SPL branches closed their doors back in March. Everything shifted online. All employees were remote. That had never happened before, Rousu said. While they were adapting, Rousu, who is the supervisor for mobile library services, wondered how seniors and people without internet access were going to access what the library had to offer.
In Washington, 735,000 people don't have an internet connection. In Seattle, around 14 percent of residents lack home internet. Libraries used to be a hub for these groups to get online. Currently, the state is putting around 600 drive-in wifi hotspots around the state. Around half will be at Washington state libraries.
While it's no solution for the internet access problem, with the Lit Line, SPL has expanded who can access their services by pivoting back to what Rousu called "interesting, ephemeral analog audio content." Basically, SPL has commandeered the City of Seattle's voicemail system for two-to-five-minute morsels of literature, poetry, and Seattle history.
There are limitations, of course. The content has to be under five minutes long and there's no way to save old stories. Recording a Lit Line story is basically the same as recording an outgoing voicemail message and each new one will erase the old story (maybe a dedicated or bored citizen could make recordings of each story so we can make a mixtape zine of audio recordings, Rousu joked).
On top of that, SPL can only use fair use content—anything that doesn't have a copyright. That's presented an interesting hurdle when it comes to finding diverse content since old, fair use stuff—or as Rousu called them "these Wayback Machine-type restrictions"—tend to be very white. However, since she's been intentional about finding diverse voices she's been exposed to poems and stories she had never discovered before, Rousu said.
The program soft-launched the first week of July and SPL staff has already recorded a bunch of stories. There's been everything from "Casey at the Bat" by Ernest Thayer to an article on 1920s fashion trends in Seattle and "Waking from Drunken Sleep on a Spring Day" by Li Bai. There's some Chekhov coming up, Rousu teased.
"It's been a great team effort," Rousu said. "The staff really miss patrons and we really miss talking to patrons about books. A lot of the things we’re doing are online and it lacks that kind of warmth we get from in-person interactions."
There are currently up to 58 library staffers participating, with specific people in charge of finding material for each section: the adult services librarian from the Broadview branch is coordinating English poems and stories, SPL's main Spanish librarian is doing Spanish books, there are history experts doing articles for the history box and nonfiction stuff, and more. Staff can also leave suggestions for some of their favorite works.
While Rousu hasn't done a reading herself yet, she might pick a Shakespearean sonnet. "It's interesting to find some that hits the right note for right now," Rousu said. "Like something not too depressing or that says like 'and then I was hanging out with all my friends.'”
Rousu said it's been a nice break for staffers to spend half of a workday researching content for the Lit Line and immersing themselves in old works for hours at a time.
"We all miss you," Rousu said, "and we want to read you poems."
Currently, there's no target date for when libraries will reopen. However, SPL has started contacting patrons about returning their books curbside and will start curbside pick-ups by appointment by the end of July. Select SPL branches are open for restroom access only.