Book City: King County's library director isn't afraid of the eBook

Bill Ptacek believes libraries are about more than books. Still, he's not afraid to recommend a few.
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Director of King County Library System Bill Ptacek

Bill Ptacek believes libraries are about more than books. Still, he's not afraid to recommend a few.

We have two library systems around here, and Bill Ptacek has directed the one that serves King County for 23 years. KCLS has racked up honors lately, including being named Library of the Year in 2011 by Library Journal. It was the busiest library system in the U.S. in 2010; 2012’s circulation topped 22 million items. Known as an innovator who embraces technology, Ptacek says his life is always better when he has a good book going. You can meet Ptacek at KCLS’s Literary Lions Gala, Saturday, March 23rd.

Valerie Easton: What inspired you to go into librarianship?

Bill Ptacek: I’ve always thought of libraries as more than buildings with books in them. They give people access to information and ideas; that access can be a game changer. Libraries help to create place and community and play many roles — education, recreation, cultural and economic to name a few. The challenge of maximizing all those roles gets me jazzed even after almost 40 years in the profession.

What books are open on your nightstand right now?

“Reinventing Bach” by Paul Elie is a look at how influential Bach’s been, how his music has affected so many people. I’m intrigued by Bach, maybe because I’ve taken piano lessons for 20 years and still can’t play his music. I’m also reading a galley proof of “The Son” by Philip Meyer, and I have “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy downloaded on my iPad.
Have you read a truly great book lately?

“The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes. This was a Booker Prize winner. The writing is terrific and it is an especially poignant tale and character study for those of us in the baby boom wave.

From your vantage point, what do you see as the future of the book as we know it? The future of public libraries?

If you think of a library as just a physical place, then you would have to conclude that ultimately libraries will cease to exist. But libraries are a concept that can have expression not just in our buildings, but also in our communities and the virtual world.

While access to stories, ideas and information has primarily happened over the last several centuries through the printed book, we’re very comfortable making it happen for our patrons through eBooks, books on tape or even in programs and performances. Perhaps another way to think about it is that we connect people to content and this is a great time to be in that kind of business.

Printed books will be around for a long time. Although eBooks are great and they have their place, there will always be printed books. Perhaps not as many, but in the history of mankind, as we evolve, we tend to add the ways in which we connect and improve those connections. We rarely totally discard them.

Do you tend to buy books, get them from the library? Download them?

I’ve never been a fan of audio books. I like to read at my pace and engage my whole self in the process. It could also be that I listen to Sports Radio in the car, using up that time that many people listen to audio books.

What were your most cherished books when you were a child?

An anthology of Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle and an illustrated Time/Life type encyclopedia set purchased at a grocery store. We had six kids in our family and both of those were shared and even fought over at times.

Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years?

I’ve read “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexander Dumas several times. It is published in various lengths, but the writing and story never get old.

When and where do you settle down to read?

I read while eating, and in bed before going to sleep. My wife is a librarian and my daughters are also big readers. Our family dinners sometimes looked more like a scene from the reading room of a Carnegie Library then a family meal.

Do you read poetry? Any favorite poets or poems?

I was an English major in college and Victorian Poetry was my area of focus. Poetry isn’t much on my radar now. I’m more interested in literature … maybe I’ve done my time with poetry.

Do you read mysteries, sci-fi, another genre? Any favorite authors or titles?

In my teens and twenties I read science fiction voraciously. I read everything by Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert….. It was the golden age of sci fi, and I have never been able to replicate that experience.

Mysteries, on the other hand, are a constant for me. They’re like punctuation marks in my reading. I have gone through the great American writers, including noir authors like Raymond Chandler, American women mystery writers like Sara Paretsky and Laurie King and, more recently, the Scandinavian writers. Every year I check out the “Edgar Award” winning authors.

What book(s) do you plan to read next?

After I finish everything on my nightstand, I want to read "Cloud Atlas" by Liam Callanan. It is a work of fiction set in Alaska during World War II that eventually gets into the meaning of life. I can’t wait to see how he does that; it was one of KCLS’ best books of 2012. I’m also anxious to read the third Volume of Rick Atkinson’s saga of America’s World War II involvement in Europe. “Guns at Last Light” isn’t out yet, but it can be placed on hold at KCLS.

If you go: Celebrate the joy of reading, meet Ptacek, and support KCLS at the Literary Lions Gala Saturday, March 23 at 6 p.m. Nancy Pearl is emcee, the speaker is best-selling author Dennis Lehane and 30 local authors will be there to chat, mingle and sign their latest books. Literary Lions raises funds for reading, literacy and library programs, especially for children. Learn more here. For tickets contact Claire Wilkinson at 425-369-3448 or

What Val’s Reading This Week: I’m re-reading “The Sixteen Pleasures” by Robert Hellenga. The heroine is a book conservator, one of the hundreds of young people from around the world who flocked to Florence to restore the treasures damaged when the Arno flooded in 1966. Equal parts historical fiction, art history and romance, the tale is fueled by a mystery involving an ancient pornographic manuscript, an enigmatic abbess and a powerful bishop.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Valerie Easton

Valerie Easton started her career as a librarian shelving books at Lake City Library when she was in high school. Now she writes full time, and has authored five books, includingThe New Low Maintenance Garden and her newest title Petal & Twig. She writes a weekly column and feature stories for Pacific Northwest magazine in the Seattle Times.