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.

Crosscut archive image.

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

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.

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.

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.

We have a wonderful security staff that enforces our Rules of Conduct and The Seattle Public Library can take pride in that. I’ve seen security systems in libraries across the country, and this one has the thoughtful approach that everyone deserves respectful treatment. Security officers have customer service training on how to approach people and de-escalate situations that may become challenging. When you see certain patrons every day, there is a respectful recognition and that goes a long way with our security officers. And there’s an overall governing factor that they maintain a secure and safe environment so they have the training to address problems. Our intent is to make our spaces comfortable and safe for everyone.

Lindley: I also wanted to ask about collections. There’s concern about print books versus e-books. And you have over one hundred copies of some DVDs such as Avatar. Can you talk about selecting for the collection?

Turner: Collection development is the joy of being a librarian. You can really see what’s out there. I could never work in collections because I’d be reading everything that comes in. The range is amazing.

When you purchase a book or another item, there is a lot of thought that goes into it. We have to think, "Is this an appropriate item for our collection?" If you get a book on the history of Rome, you have to think about what age group it's appropriate for. Is it something that’s really heavy and people will check it out? Will it hold up to regular use? How many copies will the Central Library need versus how many will you need for [branch] libraries? Will this item supplant another history of Rome it sits beside so that I need to remove that item because [the new one] replaces it? Do I need to look at a new edition of the history that sits beside it?

And that’s just the print side of it. Then you check to see if it’s available electronically, and if it is, then you have to think how many of those copies you need. It’s almost like a puzzle to make sure you have the right subject matter and the right age group to use it and the right format. You may buy something in three or four different formats. I use audio books because I drive a lot. Then you have those who read and love turning the page. And you have those who want it electronically.

But collection development also is not just going electronically. The tipping point isn’t there yet.

Lindley: Some patrons are concerned about the viewing of material on computers in the library that they find objectionable. Can you talk about the library’s responsibility and intellectual freedom in our democracy?

Turner: There are people who use the library and look at what some might consider objectionable material. They can bring that to the attention of the staff and perhaps have the [viewer] use another computer or address it if it is actually objectionable. But the library system values intellectual freedom so someone may seem to be viewing something objectionable and you discover they were looking at something on breast cancer or on a medical diagnosis and they’re trying to look it up.

That’s one of the beauties of the library. We don’t come in and cast judgment or place a value on whether what you’re doing is more important than what we’re doing. And when you say objectionable, we get people who don’t think people should be playing games on computers, and that’s what they find objectionable.

Lindley: When you talked about “Libraries for All,” you said “the most important part of it is you.” What did you mean?

Turner: Our whole intent is always to serve our patrons and always to assure we’re meeting their needs, and we need them to talk to us and let us know. By the same token, we really appreciate when they tell us what we’re doing well. It’s always a good feeling to get that feedback.

Lindley: How can the average citizen help or support The Seattle Public Library?

Turner: They can engage with us, talk to us and let us know what we can do to improve our services. There are many opportunities if they wish to help us meet our mission of “bringing people, information, and ideas together to enrich lives and build community.”

They can help raise awareness and promote understanding of critical library services in the community by becoming a member of the Friends of the Library.

They can give donations to the foundation to support important early learning efforts, collections, and humanities programs not covered by basic city funding.

We also want to hear your stories — for you to tell us the connections or bridges that free and accessible library services [provide] for you.


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