I buy a lot of (used) books, and I watch a lot of Netflix movies, but I still count on the Seattle Public Library for no-fee access to a mountain of great material, and the branches I frequent are almost always busy.
By now, you’ve probably heard that our city’s library system will completely shut down beginning Monday, August 31 for a full week as a cost-saving measure. When I first learned of this closure a few months ago, I assumed it would mean no physical access to branches or the Central Library, but that all the online services at it website would remain accessible. Wrong. The shut-down is all encompassing — there won’t even be access to the online catalog, which also means no placing holds on books, movies or music for pick-up later.
If you’ve never used the SPL website for placing holds, you’ve missed out on an experience that feels like shopping online, but that doesn’t involve a credit card. You type here, click there, and in a few days an email arrives telling you that your goodies are waiting at your neighborhood branch (if they showed up in your mailbox, it’d be perfect. but it’s still pretty cool).
I get that a complete shutdown to save cash means just that: everybody takes the week off without pay and the lights and water are all but turned off. But, given that these are uncertain times and that the nature of “content” held by libraries is in the midst of radical change, I’d like to propose that SPL management reconsider shutting down the website for a couple of important reasons.
In the near term, it might be prudent to keep the library’s IT staff on hand and the website going as a test of how the library would function as a “virtual” public amenity during a pandemic. As early as this fall, we might see citywide closures of schools and other public places including library branches. It’d be nice to know that the library’s infrastructure could be kept going were this to happen — and nice for the involuntarily housebound to be able to browse the catalog and plan for post-pandemic reading, viewing, and listening.
In the long term, we can’t be too many years away from a time when our public libraries will hold massive collections of digital media — books, movies and music that library patrons will be able to access anytime via the web (the King County Library System already offers ebooks and audio to their patrons). While I don’t think library branches are as threatened as video stores (with the branches’ meeting rooms, computer terminals, picture books, and story times for children, traditional books, restrooms, drinking fountains, etc.), it’s no stretch to imagine massive budget and technology-driven shifts in what services public libraries offer and how they provide them.
My prediction is that a week?long shutdown of branches in, say, 2015 would have much different impact — mainly affecting those who depend on the library as a physical location. By then, circulation of library materials will have likely undergone major restructuring (with huge staff reductions) and become less dependent on bricks and mortar. Why not give the more virtual library a dry run now while the branches are shuttered? As an experiment, it could yield some useful information.
Meanwhile, I’m hoping the VHS copy of The Hucksters that I reserved online (which was never issued on DVD, is not available on Netflix, and would cost at least $13 to buy used on Amazon) makes it to the University Branch before Monday.
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