Why shut down the entire Seattle Public Library system for a week?

The entire Seattle Public Library system will shut down from August 31st through September 7th. All branches will be closed, book drop slots will be locked, and even the website will be shut down, so there will be no access to the library catalogue or online databases.

According to information on the library website and the flyer being distributed at the branches, the closure is due to citywide budget cuts. Seattle has to close a $43 million gap in the 2009 budget, and the Seattle Public Library has to cut $1 million this year, about 2% of its budget. Shutting the library system for the week will save about $655,000 from salary reductions, as employees will not be paid during that week.

The flyer notes that by shutting the system for a week, branch hours throughout the year won’t have to be cut and library jobs will be preserved. The City Librarian, Susan Hildreth, is quoted: “While there were no good options, temporarily closing will have the least impact on public service for the long term… It preserves our regular hours of operation.”

It seems to me that there must be ways to save the same amount of money without shutting the entire system at once. The system consists of the large Central Library and 26 small neighborhood branches, so why not rotate closures among the branches throughout the year, or close half the system one week and the other half a different week. That way, if your local branch was closed, you could still go to another branch. And why shut down the website at all? A special fundraising drive could also have helped narrow the gap, as I think most library users would be willing to chip in a buck (or five) to keep their branches open.

Our Seattle libraries have always been busy, but since the downturn in the economy they are continuously packed. So many people are using the libraries for job hunting that the computers are always in use and it’s hard to find a seat. In 2008, over 2 million people visited the Central Library, nearly 5 million people visited the neighborhood branches, there were over 6 million “virtual visits” to the website, and over 11 million items were circulated. I’m sure the numbers for 2009 will be much higher.

I suspect that the decision to shut the whole system at once was made not only to get the pain over with quickly and preserve service the rest of the year, but also to make a statement and remind everyone how important the library system is by forcing us to live without it for a week. It’s actually not a bad strategy, but there must have been other options that would not have deprived this book-crazy city (and the unemployed and those without home computers) of its libraries and their vital services for a week.

5 responses to “Why shut down the entire Seattle Public Library system for a week?

  1. This decision does seem drastic, but will perhaps function as a post-apocalyptic scenario to demonstrate the value of the library to the community. Everyone says they love and support libraries, yet their budgets are perennially vulnerable.

  2. It is most certainly a bummer. Speaking for myself, I can handle not visiting the library for a week, but not using the online services is another story.

    However, from my understanding, it’s probably the only way they could really do it. Every part of the SPL is integrated with every other. If you closed one branch, as you mentioned, people would simply go to another branch nearby. It wouldn’t actually save, because the library then shuffles its staff to those branches to help with the overflow. You also couldn’t, say, deny transfers and holds to a specific branch, when one can simply go online and change the location of pick-up in an instant. With respect to closing only the branches and central, but leaving online services running, the backup with online requests (transfers, holds, etc.) would be too much to handle the week that everyone returned, so they simply can’t leave the site up and access to the systems without being completely overwhelmed when the doors opened again. I also don’t think it’s possible to shut down just one part of the online services since all of the search functionality is so directly linked to checkouts/hold requests/transfers, etc. (save for perhaps the links to external databases, which wouldn’t cost anyway since SPL isn’t powering those systems anyway). I believe it’s all running off the same database anyway.

    The fund drive is an interesting idea, but thinking about it also gets my hackles up, when, to me, the SPL is a more vital tax recipient than other choices that Seattle has made.

    I think that the tight integration is a strength to the SPL, but also at times a bit of a hindrance.

    Anyway, keep up the great work, Lisa. I love your site. 🙂

  3. “Remind?” How about “punish?” The city obviously broke their budget because the taxpayers are too stingy.

    We’re having similar budget problems here in San Antonio, and our libraries are doing the “rolling closures” you suggest. Not perfect, but we’ll get better when times aren’t so tough.

  4. lisagoldresearch

    Your explanations make sense and give me a better understanding of how complicated this is. As I expect budget cuts and closures will be an ongoing issue, my brain is still trying to find a better solution. If they have to shut the entire system down in order to furlough the employees for seven days without pay, I wonder why they couldn’t spread the closures throughout the year or extend already-scheduled holiday library closures. For example, shut the system down for Labor Day weekend, the day before or after Thanksgiving, the day after Christmas, the day before New Year’s, etc. That way everyone would be without library access for only a couple of days at a time, rather than an entire week. It also means you might be able to keep the website running without worrying about huge backlogs of holds and transfer requests. Ah, well– if I were Queen of Seattle, many things would be different….

    — Lisa

  5. All I know is that this closure is really affecting the health of those of us who are parents of Seattle school kids who have another week and a half before school starts! Aargh. We love our libraries and use them constantly…friends are hoarding their last haul from the library and are rationing them to last until re-opening day. I really feel for the library staffers who are taking a real financial hit this week….