Help Seattle Public Library remember that books and librarians are what matter most

Over the last two days, we’ve seen a lot of outrage on local social media over the Seattle Public Library’s rebranding. You can see what SPL is considering through their survey, where they’re “seeking public comment on a proposed new name and logo design.” The name change would be to “Seattle Public Libraries,” and the logo design would involve either a few patterns that are apparently loosely based on the windows of the downtown branch of the Library or a series of connected dots.

Some are upset that the Seattle Public Library is considering their brand at all, or that they’re spending a third of a million dollars on the rebranding program. Frankly, it would be hypocritical of me to agree with those people about the folly of branding, since the Seattle Review of Books co-founder Martin McClellan and I put a lot of thought and consideration into the appearance of the site on which I’m publishing these words. However noxious and/or smarmy the surrounding marketing language may be, branding is an essential part of an organization.

And the argument that the Seattle Public Library should spend the rebranding money on materials instead is a specious one, too. Nobody would think twice if a private business with a $65 million annual budget spent a third of a million dollars on a branding campaign. Brands are how the public relates to organizations, and vice versa. The Seattle Public Library interacts with people through their brand, they advocate for themselves through their brand, and they raise awareness of their services through their brand. I understand that it’s unpleasant to think of a civic treasure like the library as a business that has to continually promote awareness of their products and services, but this is important stuff.

With all that said, people absolutely are correct to be upset about this rebranding campaign; they’re just focusing their energies on the wrong part of the argument.

The sad truth is, library executive boards around the country for the last decade have formulated a new strategy for survival in the 21st century, and that strategy is to move away from books and librarians and toward broader community activities. Years ago, I spoke with a number of SPL librarians who were upset that leadership had devalued their expertise in favor of more unskilled library volunteers. The feeling among librarians at SPL has been that too much money and too many resources have gone to executives and administration at the library while librarians have been ignored. Librarians, too, have advocated against policy changes that they argue ignore poor library patrons in favor of more affluent groups.

The stories I linked to in the above paragraph are all years old, but this quote from new SPL city librarian Marcellus Turner in the Seattle PI indicates that the cultural shift away from books and librarians still continues today:

The Seattle Public Library is about books, but we are so much more… [a]n updated look and name will better reflect what our library system is today -- active community hubs where residents learn, grow and gather throughout their lives.

This is echoed by SPL’s proposed new brand statement from the user survey. According to the site, the “brand statement is one of the guiding principles of the organization,” and here it is:

The Library provides access to knowledge, experiences and learning for all. We preserve and create opportunities for the people of Seattle who make it such a dynamic and desirable place to live. When we’re empowered as individuals, we become STRONGER TOGETHER.

Leaving aside the highly unnecessary use of all-caps at the end, this is an incredibly generic statement and, most importantly, it doesn’t mention books or librarians. It’s symbolic of the larger cultural shift happening at SPL.

Look, I’m absolutely in favor of SPL’s many community programs, and I understand that libraries should not be just repositories for books. SPL provides tax and employment assistance, learning and outreach programs for kids, internet access for poor and homeless Seattleites, and any number of community service programs. These are wonderful, worthy programs.

But would it kill SPL leadership to publicly promote their amazing librarians as a resource every now and again? The conventional wisdom among library executives these days might be that Google has devalued librarians, but that conventional wisdom is wrong. Librarians are resources for research, they’re providers of social services, they’re community organizers, they’re translators, they’re child-care workers. A trained and educated librarian is maybe the friendliest, most cost-effective interface that the city government has with its citizens. And this library can’t even mention them in their brand statement? Here’s a message for SPL: Librarians are your brand. They’re the reason that people think warmly of SPL, not your logo or the typeface on your website. Without your librarians, SPL, you would be nothing.

So as you fill out SPL’s branding survey, I’d like to remind you that this is maybe the most direct way that you as a citizen can access the attention of SPL leadership. And what you do with this attention is important. Simply lodging a complaint about the cost or banality of a rebranding program is a missed opportunity; I’d encourage you to take the opportunity to remind SPL exactly what their brand is. Maybe suggest a new branding statement that promotes librarians and books as an integral part of the library experience, something like:

The Library provides access to knowledge, experiences, and learning for all. Our librarians preserve and create opportunities for the people of Seattle; our books and other materials inspire Seattleites to make this city such a dynamic and desirable place to live. When we’re empowered as individuals, we become a stronger community.

I want Seattle Public Library’s rebranding to succeed; I want the library to advocate for itself as simply and strongly as possible. But a library whose leadership doesn’t publicly acknowledge their greatest resources — their books and librarians — is a library that doesn’t appreciate its own brand in the first place.

It’s obvious to anyone who looks at this survey that SPL is an organization that is suffering a crisis of character. Help remind them that their organizational soul comes down to two simple words: books and people. A library without librarians and books is a community center. We have lots of community centers in Seattle, and we could always use more. But without libraries staffed with skilled librarians and stocked with books this city would wither and die.