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Lindley: Some people are very interested in either a separate library district, like the King County System, or a merger with that system— rather than relying on the city for funding.
Turner: Those are two separate things, and they can be confusing. In many states, The Seattle Public Library could become a district by itself but Washington state law does not allow a municipality of this size to become a [library] district. Legislation would have to change for that to occur.
There’s always interest in that because it ensures a couple things — and I’m speaking of the effect of districts nationwide. One, it assures sustainability and guarantees dedicated funding. Second, you can focus on one thing — providing library services — because you are not having to compete with other city agencies for general fund resources, such as public safety. And district libraries are often funded much better than other library systems.
Seattle would be remiss if they didn’t explore that, but it does take time to change that situation. Even if a municipal library district becomes an option and the city is interested in establishing one, it would be five years out at least, so there would be five years that the library would potentially face deeper cuts given the current economy.
Lindley: Then current law also prevents a merger with King County Library System.
Turner: Yes. That would require legislative change. I understand how people can look from the outside and say we’re both library systems, but library systems are totally different, so for two systems to merge it requires really close work and aligning of values and authority and legal work.
The county system, with 47 branches, is a huge system, and trying to combine with an urban system presents challenges such as change of taxing assessments and all kinds of other things.
One possibility is looking at the agreement we have with the King County Library System. It has nothing to do with a merger, but the reciprocal relationship we have for circulating materials between the two systems. During the “Libraries for All” campaign when some of our libraries on the fringes of the Seattle-King County line were closed, a lot of our users were using the King County Library System and that increased demand on their materials and they weren’t able to fill as many of their tax-paying citizens’ holds. An agreement was constructed around that time to address the borrowing relationship. At one time, our users could place holds in that system, but that practice was eliminated. We hear from the public that they still wish to place holds on their items.
Lindley: So both the City and the Library Foundation fund The Seattle Public Library?
Turner: Funding for basic library operations comes from the city’s general fund. Funds we receive from The Seattle Public Library Foundation help us with projects that we can’t necessarily cover with the general fund. They include our outreach programs for underserved populations and children’s reading programs like Global Reading Challenge. The Foundation helps us stretch our dollars.
Lindley: Can the foundation pay for staff or buy items for the collections or maintenance?
Turner: They have given money for collections.
Andra Addison: They’ll help with the depth of the collection and with more copies of certain books. They help us provide resources or services beyond what our base funding can provide.
Lindley: But the staff is limited to what the City can fund?
Addison: Correct. They [the foundation] may help us with special project positions, but those are not permanent.
Lindley: Interesting that all the operations — the staff, maintenance, technology, and the collection — come out of the city’s general fund. So the city is balancing the needs of the library system with funding for priorities such as housing, health care, police, and the fire department?
Turner: In deference to the Herculean tasks of the City Council and the executive, the [decisions] are not apples and oranges. I would not want to be in their shoes to make decisions about police enforcement and fire and those sorts of things, but I do try to help people understand that our resources help us meet important educational needs in our community.
We’re the backbone of what makes for a good city. We provide democratic access to materials. We are helping residents in a period of economic challenge when they’re making serious decisions about their own personal finances. They may have chosen to let go of their Internet connection or to stop or lessen their buying of books or going to movies or [cut off] other resources. They need help finding out how to look for work or complete job applications. We’re helping fill that need here. We also provide free educational and cultural programming that they can attend, as well as a community gathering place to be with others, or just work alone.
Lindley: It seems the library has a role as a community refuge or sanctuary.
Turner: That is important. When I have a little time, I sit in one of the public chairs and read magazines. People who don’t take the newspaper or magazines anymore come in to read. We have meeting spaces for people. So it’s a great opportunity for people to continue or maintain as close a resemblance to their way of life as they possibly can, while making crucial decisions about their own financial situation.
Lindley: What were your impressions of your first large Seattle Public Library meeting?
Turner: I can’t help but be in awe of the turnout and the wonderful engagement with the public. It was a true testament to how much people love their library system.
What I heard was that we need to think carefully. If we are to receive additional funding or not, we need to be sure we are responsive to community needs around how funding is allocated. They said they want better hours whether we do or do not get additional funding. So we’ll have to make some difficult decisions. I heard really strong support for the collection of books and materials.
People also really understood the importance of maintaining our buildings. They know that the historic Carnegie buildings need more care. They understood that the (Central Library] won’t be as inviting unless we do our part to continually keep up with maintenance. They also understood where we need to go with technology and our online services.
Lindley: You also mentioned technology and the need to update the computers in the libraries.
Turner: They do need updating. Our technology needs were met only because of “Libraries for All” back in 2004. We have not had a chance to update since then, but we have a wonderful IT [information technology] department that has done everything to make it last and our staff is attentive. But there are growing needs we have to address.
Lindley: Some comments came up in terms of safety and comfort of the library, and there were concerns about people bathing in the restrooms and perhaps a tension concerning some homeless patrons.
Turner: The Seattle Public Library is no different than other urban libraries. I’ve worked in the metro areas of Denver and Chicago. It’s an issue that all libraries face and is no reflection on Seattle, especially when you have economically challenged populations such as the homeless who do not have a place to engage during the day. We welcome anyone who wants to use our resources. We don’t discriminate.
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