The Seattle Public Library’s annual shutdown

For those of you who live in Seattle, a reminder that the Seattle Public Library system will be closed from Monday, August 30th through Monday, September 6th. This week-long end of summer shutdown has unfortunately become an annual event (see my blog post from last year, “Why shut down the entire Seattle Public Library system for a week?”). All branches will be closed and the library staff of about 650 will be on unpaid furlough. In a change from last year, the SPL website won’t be shut down, so you can access the library catalog (though you can’t put books on hold), the databases and online resources, and digital media, but you are on your own if you run into problems or have questions. See this SPL document for details.

To help close a $67 million gap in Seattle’s 2010 general fund budget, Seattle’s library system had to cut $3 million this year from its $50 million budget. The shutdown will save $650,000, with the rest coming from a reduction in branch hours (as of last February, 15 of the 27 branches are closed on Fridays and Sundays and open only 35 hours a week) and cuts to staff, the book buying budget, the capital budget for major maintenance, etc. It looks like there will be even deeper cuts in 2011, as Seattle is facing a $56 million gap for 2011 and the mayor has asked the library and most other city departments (except police and fire) for cuts of 9.5% to 14.5%, which for the library would be $4.9 to $7.4 million.

The SPL leadership is going to have to make some very tough decisions and face the fact that its budget will not only continue to decline over the next few years but may never again be what it was during Seattle’s boom times.

From 1998 to 2008, Seattle built, replaced, expanded, and renovated libraries throughout the city with the $291 million “Libraries for All” bond measure, passed during Seattle’s dot-com boom. The SPL website boasts:

Ten years later, we have finished the final chapter of Libraries for All. It’s time to pause for a moment and look at what we’ve achieved – four new libraries in communities without library service, the replacement, expansion or renovation of 22 existing branches, and a spectacular new Central Library.

Yes, let’s look at what we’ve achieved– we have 27 new or improved library buildings but we’ve had to cut back on the hours they are open, cut back on their staff, cut back on buying books and materials, and defer maintenance. Building new libraries is sexy, but funding their day-to-day operations is not, and expanding your library system results in significant and permanent increases in all of your costs. Unfortunately, the library system does not have a dedicated funding source, so it has to fight for money from the city’s general fund against higher-priority departments like fire, police, human services, the courts, and transportation, to name a few. In lean times, libraries are the low-hanging fruit.

Seattle may love its libraries, but it takes money to keep them open.

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