Spotlight: Seattle Public Library

By on

Inspiration, Seattle-style

By Brian Mathews

Originally appeared in the January/February 2010 issue of American Libraries

Spotlighting creative library management practices

What makes a library inspiring to its users? The key component is the relationship it builds with the people it serves. Seattle Public Library is a showcase for this attribute. In 2008, just in time to face what has become a global financial crisis, the library completed the 10-year “Libraries for All” campaign, which resulted in the construction of several new branches and improvements to every other library building.

What’s most inspiring about this ambitious plan is the way the city’s public librarians took it to the streets, attending community meetings and visiting neighborhoods to ask people what they wanted in their libraries. Community outreach led to changes in collections and policies, but also to specific renovation needs for the various branches: One wanted a community landmark, another a “green” roof, and another a relaxing reading room. These direct conversations enabled the library to customize its branches.

Seattle City Librarian Susan Hildreth sees empowering users as critical. “Our library is the place where the community gathers, learns, teaches, celebrates, and listens,” she says. Hildreth envisions the library as an intellectual and cultural common space.

Libraries nationally have been gaining a reputation as “third place” destinations, locations between home and work that enable people to mingle and congregate. SPL has witnessed a dramatic rise not only in annual visitors—over 7 million last year—but also in attendance at classes and programs, which has risen steadily to nearly 200,000 participants each year.

SPL is taking timely and critical next steps to address the needs of a particular segment: job seekers. A 50,000 grant funded by the Gates Foundation and Washington State Library is allowing Seattle to expand services to people looking for work. A new Job Resource Center designated for job hunters features computers and career reference materials and offers workshops on résumé writing, interviewing, job searching, and financial planning. Additionally, SPL is hosting career fairs to bring employers and job seekers together. The next phase of the project includes expanding online resources to connect patrons with experts in different fields, and creating an online social space for job seekers to comment and share strategies.

Save the time of the user

As we strive to foster relationships with our patrons, marketing and advocacy is essential. Hildreth’s advice is to “keep the library at the forefront of people’s minds.” Whether helping people find jobs, helping students with homework, or providing meeting space for local organizations, the library must remain a visible part of the community. Hildreth warns that “it is crucial to maintain public support for libraries because once support declines, so will our ability to provide services.” She continues, “If this happens, then use goes down, then funding, and then the library’s relevancy to its patrons.”

SPL is currently facing a 5 percent budget reduction. To address this shortfall, the library is reconfiguring and reducing operating hours systemwide. In addition, it is continuing to reduce administrative salaries and exploring furlough options. Despite these setbacks, Hildreth remains positive. When asked about the future, she stated that her library is planning to engage Seattleites in the spring, “we’re going to begin a new round of strategic planning by hosting a series of community conversations in order to stay in touch with our patrons.” In addition to these neighborhood talks, SPL will administer a systemwide survey, conduct focus groups, and explore trends on emerging technologies and user experience design.

Hildreth emphasizes this: “I think you have to build a culture that bases all decisions, activities, and services on what is in the best interest of the user.” She advises, “It is challenging because sometimes we think we know what is best but we really need to determine that from the user’s point of view, not our own.”

Tags: