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.