I thought this blog had run its course. I’m mostly interested in writing about bikes and alternative transportation these days. But the sheer stupidity of SPL’s latest effiorts to balance (a teeny tiny part) of its budget by punishing users sort of pushed me over the edge.  So I’m back with a guest post or two on my old blog.

The Seattle Public Library system is in Budget Hell. Years ago, voters approved a massive plan to revamp the system’s infrastructure by re-building/remodeling virtually every branch. They did a beautiful job constructing fantastic buildings (see photo above) on time and on budget.

Unfortunately, no one seems to have thought about what would happen to the activities in all these great buildings if the city stopped funding the library at adequate levels (if, for example, something like a massive economic downturn was to occur).


So here we are today with lovely buildings, pressing patron needs (people absolutely flock to libraries when they are unemployed and have nothing to do all day), and not enough budget to go around.

Way back with in the Mayor Nichols days, SPL began instituting week-long closures summer and holiday closures. Combined with shaved branch hours, these measures reduced short-term costs and saved some money. But the budget kept sinking.

Part of the problem with cutting costs by cutting services is that the powers that be (the people, the city council, the citizens, whomever) decide that you can do with less. So instead of those being one-time cuts, they are part of the new budget paradigm. And if revenues decrease again, well, you need to keep those cuts and find out more places else to chop dollars.

It’s a vicious cycle that keeps going on for years and years until the remaining system either dies or shrivels into an unrecognizable shadow of itself.

netflix processing, by hackingnetflixIn the meantime, the entire library world has been wobbling off kilter. Google, Netflix, Amazon Kindle, etc — are all forces nibbling at the library pie. (This wobble isn’t anything new. It’s not like it popped up as an issue after the new buildings were constructed. These are just the latest players). Library professionals know that libraries and trained librarians can’t really be replaced by these corporate services, but we’ve all be slow to react.

There’s no doubt some of these commercial services are great right now, but there’s no guarantee they’ll be out there for us in the future. They aren’t taking the long view or considering the Long Now. Libraries serve the public. The can and should think about the future. Companies serve shareholders. They may think about the future, but it’s one fiscal quarter at a time.

photo credit: http://www.cultofmac.comBut citizens don’t understand this. Many see libraries as staid and out of place in today‘s connected world. Why, your neighbors ask, should they be funding a building full of books in 2010 when they’ve got their iTunes and Kindle for the iPhone? (Seattle is different in that we seem OK with funding buildings; we don’t like funding people to staff them).

Younger and/or visionary librarians realize that if we want those citizen/taxpayer/voters to understand how important libraries are to society,  we need to change much of how how the system works and how our users perceive it.

This is not rocket science. Libraries need to be offering services that both support their traditional role yet move solidly toward the future.

But in Seattle, we’re failing to do this. Faced with budge shortages, our library cuts hours. We cut staff. We penalize our patrons instead of reinventing ourselves.

In reality, the last thing in the world we should be doing is setting up barriers that drive people away from the library and to these commercial services. That behavior is as shortsighted as these corporate services.

We need to be thinking out of the box. What if revenues don’t increase? Will we let our libraries die a thousand cuts, or innovate our way into the future?

Let me just say this one more time to be clear. SPL cannot budget-cut its way to relevancy and sustainability.

Seriously folks. SHOW. ME. SOME. VISION. Because if we can’t be bold in book-and-library-loving Seattle, then we can’t be bold anywhere. And I don’t want consider the possibility that an entire nation of libraries is completely fucked.