More than books: The case for passing Seattle's library levy

The Capitol Hill branch of the Seattle Public Library on July 15, 2019. (Photo by Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

When you get your ballot in the mail, it's sometimes hard to visualize the real-world consequences of your vote. But if you want to understand what Proposition 1 on this summer’s ballot will do for you, those positive benefits are plain to see, no matter which Seattle neighborhood you call home.

All you have to do is head to the nearest branch of The Seattle Public Library and look around. You'll see library patrons reading books, meeting with community groups, reading aloud to children, taking classes, using technology and accessing assistance that may otherwise be beyond their reach. Look at the faces of your neighbors, and you will see dozens of reasons to cast your vote for the Library Levy Renewal.

As a co-founder of the Seattle Review of Books, I'm sure you expect me to praise Seattle Public Library's astounding catalog of physical books and its impressive digital collection of e-books and audio books. It's true: The collections are and will always be a vital component of Seattle's cultural and intellectual life, along with SPL's fantastic year-round program of author talks. Seattle is a UNESCO-endorsed International City of Literature in large part thanks to our library's tireless commitment to the literary arts.

But visit your neighborhood library, and you'll see that SPL has taken on an even more important role in our community. As federal funding for child services, adult education, assistance for unhoused individuals, citizenship courses for immigrant populations and cultural celebration has diminished, SPL has stepped in to fill the void. Library employees aren't just world-class recommenders of books (though they are that, too) — they're teachers, research assistants, community advocates, social services providers and media consultants.

That's why renewing the library levy is so crucial for the city's well-being. At an estimated cost of around $3 more per month for the average homeowner, the seven-year $219.1 million levy will allow SPL to better serve the city for years to come.

If the levy passes, SPL will be able to keep its 27 neighborhood branches open for roughly 10,000 additional hours per year — and those extra hours of operation will encompass times when more Seattleites can access services, like Sundays and weekday evenings. The library will purchase more physical and digital media to keep up with Seattle's voracious demand for quality storytelling in all its forms — books, films, magazines, audiobooks, music. Additionally, levy funds will future-proof the library, allowing SPL to make important seismic upgrades and keep the library's technology up to date and ready for the next generation of information-tech improvements.

Most important, the levy represents a priceless investment in the next generation of Seattleites. From birth, Americans are taught to revere and respect libraries as a kind of secular sacred ground — a safe place to learn and test the limits of knowledge. The levy will renew and strengthen that promise for the future by expanding early learning support and classes for parents and preschool children, thereby helping our most vulnerable neighbors prepare for success in school. And it will connect teens to housing, transportation, addiction services and other important resources. The levy also eliminates late fees — a regressive practice that disproportionately penalizes the poorest and youngest library patrons, pushing them away from a local resource that eagerly welcomes them when other institutions will not.

Like many essential services, though, people tend to take the library for granted. So what would happen if the library levy doesn't pass? The library would lose a quarter of its budget — a huge loss that means shorter operating hours, fewer employees, a shrinking collection and crumbling buildings. The cost beyond that is incalculable and generational in scope: children left behind, immigrants and at-risk populations left without resources, people in crisis without assistance.

On the basis of The Seattle Public Library's compelling literary merit alone, the library levy would be well worth the cost. But it's the human value — the tremendous, unknowable, positive benefits for this city and our neighbors — that makes the levy an absolute imperative.

Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Paul Constant

Paul Constant

Paul Constant is a co-founder of the Seattle Review of Books.