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The plan to preserve Seattle's beloved book sanctuaries

Marcellus Turner, Seattle's new City Librarian, talks about why Seattleites love their libraries and how he plans to keep things that way. Even in the midst of budget cuts.

Marcellus Turner, Seattle's City Librarian.

Marcellus Turner, Seattle's City Librarian. The Seattle Public Library

The Seattle Central Library, as depicted on Slate. (Witold Rybczynski)

The Seattle Central Library, as depicted on Slate. (Witold Rybczynski) None

Seattle’s new City Librarian, Marcellus Turner, kicked off a series of community meetings on the future of the library system at the celebrated Seattle Central Library on Saturday, January 7. The stately Turner listened patiently, responding thoughtfully to ideas from the audience of about 200. The library is well-loved and well-used, and patrons want more of everything he asked about: longer hours, more materials (print and electronic) in the collection, updated computers and new technology, and improved maintenance.

But in tough economic times, adding more services, or even maintaining current services, is difficult. Turner and the Library Board are assessing patron priorities as they explore funding alternatives to maintain and improve library services. Budget cuts since 2009 have already resulted in reduced resources and services, including a weeklong closure of all libraries each summer, and it's likely the libraries will see more cuts in the coming year.

To help restore services and supplement City funding for operating costs, City and Library officials are considering a property-tax levy for this coming August. The current assessment of priorities grows out of the Library’s new strategic plan and follows the successful $290.7 million “Libraries for All” program of 1998 when Seattle voters approved the largest library bond in American history to build the new central library downtown and four new neighborhood branches and to renovate all other branches.

The process of evaluating funding options was under way when Turner took the helm of the library system last August. He was hired to oversee the Central Library and 26 branches, a $51.8 million operating budget, and about 640 staff members. The admired Seattle system circulated nearly 12 million books and other materials last year and logged more than 14 million visits to its buildings and its website. And about 63 percent of Seattle residents have a library card, much higher than the national average, according to SPL Communications Director Andra Addison.

The system offers a stunning array of materials and services including 2.2 million books and other items, 1,000 public computers, Wi-Fi at every location and a wide range of digital resources, online magazines and books, more than 90 databases, and more than 400 literary, cultural and learning-based programs each month.

Turner has worked in libraries for more than 20 years, most recently as executive director of the Jefferson County Public Library system in Lakewood, Colo., where he managed operations of the library's 10 locations and its bookmobile. He also worked in several other academic and public libraries, including a three-year stint with the Tacoma Public Library as a reference department supervisor from 1997 to 2000. He is active in the American Library Association and holds a master's degree in library science from the University of Tennessee.

From his office in the majestic Central Library, Turner spoke at length about the library and looming issues he will address in the coming months as he gets to know Seattle. Library Communications Director Andra Addison also sat in and provided background information.

Robin Lindley: I loved your statement at the public meeting that you knew Seattle had a great library system because it has “something to offend everyone.”

Marcellus Turner: One of the things I discovered early on is that people have opinions about everything, no matter the subject matter. If you want to have a really great collection there will be something that offends everyone — be it around politics, religion, or raising kids.

Having worked in some great library systems with strong collections, I came here and did my own test to see if certain items were available and browsed the shelves to see how extensive the collection was on particular subjects.

Lindley: What are some of your impressions as you visit different branch libraries in Seattle?

Turner: This city takes its neighborhoods quite seriously [and] it reflects a great pride. I’m presently living in a temporary location close to the office because I wanted to give myself time to look around before deciding where I really wanted to be. When I visit a library, it helps me get a feel for the neighborhood and whether that’s where I want to end up.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Jan 27, 9:26 a.m. Inappropriate

As a lifelong reader who is also retired, I'm at the library at least once (if not more) each week. However, I am concerned that the public might not realize that we are looking at what appears to be a perpetual library levy. After the first meeting at Central in early January, I asked a library staffer how long the levy would last and was told 6 years. Given how things work in Seattle, the expectation of politicians would be to ask for a 'renewal' towards the end of this levy. Yet at the meeting I felt the emphasis was on making up the current shortfall and making up the loss of hours, the staff furloughs, the maintenance shortfalls.

I ask--is that the carrot and will the future reality be the stick of a perpetual library levy? I, for one, have no problem with voting for a three-year levy with the idea that at the end of it the city's finances will have bounced back and will be able to fully fund the library once again. Otherwise might we taxpayers be enabling elected officials to spend what would have been future library spending on other projects? I know I am cynical but budget items that don't allow politicians to cut ribbons hold little allure for them.

m-t-e

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