Reimagining our Libraries for the Next Generation

Eighteen months ago, I assumed one of the most revered positions in the library world – serving as your city librarian.  The responsibility of managing one of the city’s most treasured community resources has truly been an honor and a privilege.  Seattle is a city of readers and it’s wonderful to live and work in a city where people care deeply about their libraries.

In 1998, we embarked on the “Libraries for All” program to give Seattle a system of libraries to revolutionize what we do. And we did, renovating or building new libraries including the world-renowned Central Library.

Unfortunately, several years of budgets cuts followed.  But we managed, streamlined and survived.  And we developed a plan to stabilize the Library budget.  A seven-year, $122 million Library levy received overwhelming public support, thanks to each and every one of you.  As a result, we are delivering on our promises for increased operating hours, more print and electronic books, movies and music, upgraded technology and an improved budget for building maintenance and repair.

Now, however, we face the challenge of redefining how our Library does business. The technology and publishing industries are physically and literally changing the landscape of libraries. They are causing us to rethink what we do, how we do it, and more importantly, who can have access to it. Technology and publishing combined are the two biggest game changers in the Library world today. They are impacting what we do with our collections and that in turn changes the work of our reference and shelving staff.  In effect, our current way of doing business is losing its relevance and is slowly becoming a dated business practice.

As more books are available online and more people buy devices to access them, the circulation of physical books will decline.  At our libraries, circulation of downloadable media is up 67 percent over last year and virtual visits have surpassed our in-person visits by nearly 1 million. Likewise, our Wi-Fi access has increased and onsite computer usage has lessened.  While some of that was the result of significant budget cuts and policy changes around the lending of materials we can see shifts in how patrons are using us.

Even so, we hope that the restoration of critical resources and services via the Levy will reverse these trends.

Over the next decade, as more children grow up in an increasingly digital world, our lives and libraries will continue to change.  We must serve our community in new, innovative and compelling ways to meet our mission and survive in an increasingly competitive and difficult public funding environment.

And lest you think our core service deliverables are changing, they aren’t. Patrons still want to check out materials, ask librarians for help, and seek educational classes and lectures to further their intellectual and recreational interests. It’s just that the ways people now access information are transforming the way people use libraries and we must adapt.

Our solution, the vision I am sharing, has been shaped by public and staff comments, philosophical and directional discussions with other Library systems, personal introspection, and what is happening in the world, including advances in technology.

Our efforts are grounded in the Strategic Plan and emphasize five key areas that will assure our long-term success as we adapt to a changing world, blending our work with the values of Seattle residents.

These five areas are:

  • supporting youth and early learning
  • using technology for access and experience
  • enhancing our program of civic and public engagement
  • curating and preserving Seattle culture and history and
  • reimagining our Library spaces to create new patron experiences.

Our business, role and value still matter. Our business remains access to information.  And our role and value – providing a means for continuous personal growth and self-fulfillment, and serving as a vehicle for community connection and betterment stays true.

We have the opportunity to focus on what we want our future to look like and how we can get there. As we move forward on the five priorities, we will explore new and innovative ways to serve our community. We need to put aside our traditional thinking about libraries. We want to reimagine The Seattle Public Library in creative new ways that ensure the educational, cultural and economic health of our vibrant city. I’m excited about the Library’s future and want to hear your thoughts or ideas.




Can we come back tomorrow?

A patron from the Columbia Branch shares a story from her recent visit:

Columbia City Branch“I was checking out books at the Columbia City branch a few months ago, shortly after I’d learned the branch had reduced its hours…as I checked out, a father with two boys came up to the counter to ask the librarian a question.”

The brothers were talking and one said to the other, ‘Let’s ask Dad if we can come back here tomorrow.’ The older brother said, ‘This place is SO much fun!’

The younger boy said ‘OK,’ and they started tugging on their dad’s shirt. ‘Dad, Dad, can we come back here tomorrow?’ Finally the dad responded, ‘Yes, sure.’

“My heart sank because I knew that the branch was now going to be closed on Sunday, the next day. The enthusiasm the boys had for being in the Library was contagious and impressive. I wished I had the power to open the doors for them the next day.”

School and Public Libraries: A strong partnership supporting Student success

Roxhill Elementary Global Reading Challenge Team with Librarian
Roxhill Elementary Global Reading Challenge Team with Librarian
“The positive relationship between a well funded and fully staffed school library and academic achievement of children is a subject that is well documented. I feel fortunate to be the teacher-librarian at Roxhill, an elementary school that values the role of the library and librarian in academic achievement. I want to take this positive relationship a step further and affirm that our childrens’ relationship with their public library is also critical for their future.

“We know that we have succeeded as teachers when students take their education beyond the boundaries of the classroom. In large part, this next step is just being familiar with the public library, knowing how to get there by foot, being comfortable using its resources, feeling that it is a welcoming place. We want our students to see their public library as a home away from home, a school away from school—a place to go after school hours to extend their learning—a place that will welcome them on weekends and vacations. It is so important that students have this public library access. Because many of our students do not have books or computer access at home the public library plays an important role in equalizing opportunity for learning resources.
“Already this year, students at Roxhill have taken three field trips (by Metro Bus) to the Downtown Branch of the Public Library. Two of these field trips were for performances, the third was to participate in the Global Reading Challenge. These students are well on their way to claiming the Public Library as their own.

ch_global-logo-2009 “The Global Reading Challenge is a striking example of breaking down the boundaries between school and the larger community. In a close partnership between the school librarians and public librarians, students are organized into teams, supplied with books and they read, read, read. With the distractions of television and video games competing with reading for student leisure time, this program is truly a heaven-sent alternative. Students love the camaraderie and competition of the programs. Many read books they otherwise would not have read and their experience in this program turns some from indifferent to avid readers. For those students who already love to read, this program pats them on the back, says “You are cool, because you are a reader.” The Global Reading Challenge has become an important part of the literacy program for 4th and 5th graders, an incredibly powerful reading motivational tool for our upper-grade students.

“All this is by way of saying that there is a strong connection between a successful school and the libraries that serve it. The school library and the public library co-exist as partners in the future of our children and each must be well staffed and well funded to fulfill its purpose.”

These comments are excerpts from thoughtful testimony written by the Roxhill Elementary School Librarian Teacher. Please support funding for The Seattle Public Library. How can you help? Email Councilmembers and ask them to preserve library funding. Can you offer more help?

Join us in reading My Jim

searead09My Jim, by Seattle author Nancy Rawles, is the Seattle Reads selection this Winter. Did you know that Seattle Reads, which originally was called “What if all Seattle Read the Same Book,” is an admired program that’s been adapted by libraries all over the country? Please join Friends of The Seattle Public Library in exploring My Jim and celebrating this shared reading experience.

NPR Story Corps: Learning To Read

NPR Story Corps elicits the same reaction in me as an interviewee of Barbara Walters – I usually get misty. This story was no different. Here’s a bit from the website:

“Joe Buford, 63, has a high school diploma but kept a secret, even from his family: He couldn’t read.

“I could memorize things,” he says. “I call it drawing the words …. Nobody in my family really knew how bad it was with me and how hurt I was over it.”

Buford’s wife didn’t know about his reading problem until after they were married, he says.”

He goes on..

“Before Buford had children, he worried that “what was wrong with me would be passed on to my kids.” He was afraid they wouldn’t learn to read. “It just broke my heart,” he says.

He was terrified of the prospect of having to read to his young daughters. “

It never fails to amaze me how far people can get on such little education. This gentleman has gone through the education, medical, and tax systems not knowing how to read. He’s raised a family, held a job and gone through every day life with an over arching fear and shame that was finally lifted in his mid-60’s.

Definitely a testament to the “never too late” approach to self development, but also inspiring from a community perspective. Here was a volunteer who spent time with him, helped him learn, in an environment that was safe – in this case an adult literacy center in Nashville.

“I jumped up and ran through the house. It made me cry and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, it really is sinking in.'”

That is exactly how I felt (sans crying) when I first learned to read. So excited, so enthusiastic about learning – on my way to being a student of life and those around me.

To read more or listen to the program, click here

For a search on adult literacy at the SPL, click here as well as their literacy section.

Younger Audiences Frequent Libraries

A recent report from the Pew/Internet & American Life Project indicates that “members of Gen Y are the leading users of libraries for help solving problems and in more general patronage.” The report went on to indicate that young adults will be the primary users of libraries in the future when they encounter problems: “40% of Gen Y said they would do that, compared with 20% of those above age 30 who say they would go to a library.”

 Interesting, considering they are the generation with the most technical gadgetry attachmented to their person. Seems there is still no replacement for the knowledgable librarian, the act of life-long learning, and experiencing civic participation.