When voters overwhelmingly passed the most recent update to Seattle’s public library levy in 2019, expanded hours at all 26 neighborhood branch libraries was explicitly on the ballot. When assembling the package of programs and improvements to send to voters, the city council had explicitly decided to add back in a proposal that had been shelved by Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office which extended library operations by an additional hour Monday through Thursday at every branch except the Downtown Central library, pushing back weeknight closing time to 9pm, on par with King County Library System and other peer library systems around the country. Those increased hours were to come on top of an additional hour on Sundays, as well as increased hours at some branches still closed on Fridays, a remnant of budget cuts during the Great Recession.
But the pandemic changed things. To stem the reduction in revenue due to Covid-19, the City approved a 2021 budget that reduced the amount of support that the library receives from the City’s general fund by 10%, reducing the overall operating budget for the library by over 7%. Offsetting general fund revenue reductions with dedicated levies was something the City did in numerous departments. Stable property tax levies presented a bit of a budget life raft.
Now, as revenue projections are looking much rosier going into 2022, Mayor Durkan’s final budget would restore that general fund revenue base to the Seattle Public Library, adding $5.1 million back. Paired with $700,000 in cost savings that the library has on hand as it has reopened branches this year, that should amount to a full restoration of general fund support for SPL, paving the way for expanded operating hours.
The Seattle Public Library is currently conducting a survey on how those hours should be restored. As Seattle faces a new reality around the ongoing pandemic, SPL is seeking to better understand how the community uses its libraries and how they might like to use them in the future. The library survey is open until next Monday, November 8th. If the library system ended up adding all of the operating hours as envisioned in the 2019 levy, they would operate around 1,500 cumulative hours every week, an increase of more than 20% over the lowest point of the recession in 2010.
Back in 2019, the city council made the decision to exclude funding for additional weeknight hours at the Central library due to cost. Compared to operating the branches, operating the downtown library for even one additional hour is considerably more expensive. But given the high numbers of people who depend on the Central library, that may be reassessed with the results of this survey.
The next few years are poised to be full of changes for the Seattle Public Library. In addition to these levy-funded operating hour expansions, the search is on for a new City Librarian. Earlier this year, Marcellus Turner, who led the library for a full decade, departed for a job in North Carolina overseeing the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library System. By early next year, the library board of trustees will choose a new City Librarian who will have to fill Turner’s very big shoes.
The current library levy won’t be up for renewal until 2026, but it’s about time for the city to ask: what’s the long term vision for the system? Despite large increases in population, Seattle hasn’t added a new branch library in a decade and a half, and several of the areas of the city where added housing has been most encouraged don’t have a library branch, including Uptown, Belltown, South Lake Union, Denny Triangle, and Eastlake. Will the next City Librarian take up the issue of expanding the library system to serve growing areas of the city?
In the meantime, work continues to improve the existing system. Next year the library is scheduled to complete the first of three planned seismic retrofits to its branches as promised in the 2019 levy. Green Lake’s branch is expected to be closed for eighteen months and then the University branch will be upgraded in 2024 and the Columbia City branch in 2026.
The City Council is also considering a few amendments to SPL’s budget for next year. One amendment, proposed by Councilmember Alex Pedersen and co-sponsored by Councilmembers Herbold and Sawant would fund the addition of air conditioning to two high-use branches, Northeast and Southwest. This past summer the City depended heavily on its library branches to operate as cooling centers during the record-breaking heat wave, but there were large geographic gaps between areas where residents could find an open library with air conditioning. Using libraries as cooling centers only underscores their importance as community assets: libraries with HVAC systems can also provide relief from poor air quality. These needs are only going to increase. Seattle must ensure that it is adequately supporting its library system so it can serve the Seattle of the future.
Ryan Packer lives in the Summit Slope neighborhood of Capitol Hill and has been writing for the The Urbanist since 2015. They report on multimodal transportation issues, #VisionZero, preservation, and local politics. They believe in using Seattle's history to help attain the vibrant, diverse city that we all wish to inhabit. Ryan's writing has appeared in Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, Bike Portland, and Seattle Bike Blog, where they also did a four-month stint as temporary editor.