The Seattle Public Library
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.
It’s just amazing how much people really love the library [and] there’s a vast range of what they love about it. They love our collection, the facilities, and the services that we offer — all the things that we should take pride in and that we’re trying to improve. That’s what I’m hearing. It means we’re relevant and have value to them, and that’s what matters most.
Lindley: You’re following in the footsteps of librarians Deborah Jacobs and Susan Hildreth. It must be a little daunting to come to a bigger system after those locally admired leaders.
Turner: It is a little bit daunting. I was not overly concerned about my ability to lead, or my ability to deal with the administrative side of it. It was more when I’m out in the community and someone said, “I’m a patron of the Lake City Branch” that I would remember where Lake City was, or who the manager of the branch was. Those connections are important to me.
Lindley: How do you see your role as city librarian?
Turner: It is multifaceted. It is providing the leadership to ensure we are delivering a great program of library service to our residents. It is keeping the importance of library services foremost in the minds of the public and civic leaders. It is providing opportunities for all residents to enjoy life as a result of the services we offer — whether it is access to educational resources or cultural programs. It is championing the basic tenets of public libraries — free access to library services and equitable access for all residents.
Another important role is representing The Seattle Public Library at the local, state, and national levels. As an acknowledged national leader in its profession, The Seattle Public Library carries a responsibility to share the depth and breadth of our knowledge to the benefit of other libraries.
Lindley: At the public meeting, you mentioned a continuation of “Libraries for All” and a possible levy to help maintain library services. Was this plan already in the works when you started in August?
Turner: When Susan Hildreth came on board after Jacobs, there was a recognition that the library system needed additional funding for operations and maintenance. She worked with the City Council and others on a statement of legislative intent to allow The Seattle Public Library to look at different funding options for sustainability of the library system. They had several options: creating a separate taxing district, a dedicated sales tax and a levy.
Analysis eliminated the separate taxing district and sales tax. The one left on the table was a potential levy. When I came in, I was able to step in and do some preliminary work to further investigate our options and find out where the board, the City Council, and others were. That’s where we are now as we ask for public input on our programs and services. Then next the [library] board has to weigh in on a suitable option for us, and then it goes to the mayor and city council.
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