An open letter to the Seattle Public Library Board of Trustees about SPL’s “anti-book” agenda

President Fujiwara and the Seattle Public Library’s Board of Trustees,

As Laurel Holliday reported for the Seattle Review of Books last week, public response to Seattle Public Library’s proposed rebranding campaign has been overwhelmingly negative. In fact, Holliday reports the response has been so negative that the board appears likely to kill the rebranding plan at or before their public meeting on Wednesday.

This is for the best. The rebranding was ill-considered, and it was presented to the public in an arrogant, unprofessional way. SPL librarians were not warned about the rebranding effort in advance, so they were unprepared when the angry public demanded answers. Curiously, the rebranding survey was only available online, so low-income patrons and the elderly had limited access to it. (Why would a library with branches all over the city not make printed copies of the rebranding survey available to the patrons who use libraries most? Do they not care what those patrons have to say?) Further, it was only available in English, which kept thousands of patrons’ voices out of the discussion. This last point is especially egregious because immigrant populations rely on the library for support as they make Seattle their home. They were given no voice in this discussion.

But the rebranding is not the reason for this open letter. As we have previously mentioned, we are not opposed to organizations spending money on their branding. Branding is important; it’s how organizations explain themselves to the world. The problem is, this botched attempt at rebranding perhaps honestly communicates more about the state of Seattle Public Library than the Board may have intended. The reason the response to this rebranding study was so visceral is that the city of Seattle was horrified to learn that this rebranding campaign might possibly identify the true spirit of SPL management—its incompetence; its tone-deaf corporate speak; and its utter lack of respect for patrons, librarians and literature.

Over the last two weeks, we have interviewed a number of your employees — librarians, management and support staff — about Seattle Public Library. All of the employees requested anonymity for fear of retribution. This is obviously not optimal, because it means we can’t use the personal details they gave us in this letter. But taken in aggregate, these many individual stories meld into a portrait of an organization that has completely lost sight of its mission.

They told us about an SPL that is freighted down with many layers of unnecessary middle management but which still somehow doesn’t communicate with its ground-level employees. They told us about an SPL that creates a hostile work environment for librarians; that narrowly focuses on white, middle-class patrons at the expense of minorities and underprivileged populations; that is at best uninterested or at worst openly hostile to its role as a champion of literature and culture on the behalf of the people of Seattle.

Worse, SPL employees have indicated to us that they have absolutely no confidence in City Librarian Marcellus Turner. More than one employee described Turner to us as actively “anti-book.” On the few occasions when Turner was made available to librarians for discussion, we were informed that Turner often could not identify which book he was currently reading, at least once demurring that he was more of a magazine person.

The fact is, not every librarian loves reading. That’s okay. We talked with several SPL employees who admitted to reading much less than what the public would expect them to. But the City Librarian position is generally expected to be an advocate for books and reading. For the figurehead of our city’s library system to be visibly uncomfortable when asked about books is an untenable situation.

What happens when you get an at-best tenuous supporter of literature to run a library? You’re handed anti-book policies like Turner’s “Service Priorities” for SPL, which are as follows:

Youth and early learning

Provide Library services that support youth and families in academic success, career readiness and life.

Technology and access

Serve as Seattle's primary point of access to information, lifelong learning, economic development and creative expression through innovative use of technology and digital resources.

Community engagement

Offer Library programs, services and collections that reflect community needs and interests, feature community voices and create meaningful experiences.

Seattle culture and history

Connect our community with our diverse local culture and history through compelling collections, expert assistance, innovative partnerships and engaging programs.

Re-imagined spaces

Adapt and energize Library spaces for new uses in keeping with changing services, programs, interests and needs of Library users and the changing way that they use Library spaces.

Did you count all the references to books and literacy and reading in those five priorities? No? That’s because there are no references to books and reading. The closest the Service Priorities come to referring to books is in the reference to preserving Seattle culture and history with “compelling collections.” This is not enough. The people of Seattle want their libraries to be stocked with a vibrant and growing collection of books; anyone who has tried to reserve a popular title from the library only to wind up in the triple-digits on a waiting list understand that SPL does not have enough books to meet demand.

Compare Turner’s Service Priorities to the Strategic Plan instituted by former City Librarian Susan Hildreth, which served as the guiding statement for SPL from 2010 to 2015. Number one on their list of goals and objectives called for SPL to “Fuel Seattle’s Passion for Reading, Personal Growth and Learning” and to “Build community around books.”

By comparison, the contortions that Turner’s SPL will twist itself into in order to not mention reading would be comical if it weren’t so embarrassing. As one SPL employee we interviewed told us, “you wouldn’t expect a business to forsake its top product,” but that’s exactly what Turner’s SPL has done. Last summer, SPL’s popular summer reading program for area children was rebranded as the “Summer of Learning” program. Instead of books, children were presented with iPads. Parents were livid, and understandably so; a program intended to promote literacy was transformed for seemingly no discernible reason and — this is important —without public input.

The unwanted focus on iPads evokes another problem with Turner’s leadership. Our city librarian is trying to frame himself as a forward-thinking technologist who has a vision for SPL, but his policies are hopelessly outdated. Unlike other city government agencies, the library still does not have a mobile-friendly website, for instance. And on any interface, its website is embarrassing, a morass from the bad old days of 2003, a site that obfuscates information rather than disseminates it. This is a situation where Turner’s supposed vision would seem to be useful; why has he not led on this?

Based on the conversations we’ve had with librarians, Turner is too busy actively devaluing the librarians in his employ to do anything useful. Turner’s SPL has continually used volunteer or non-librarian employees to do the work that librarians used to do. (According to librarians we talked with, SPL has even hired some people with library science degrees for non-librarian jobs, which pay roughly a quarter less than librarian positions.) SPL is right now in the process of removing librarians from their role as moderators of book clubs and handing those moderator positions to non-librarian employees, for example.

Perhaps the board and Turner will point to de-escalating circulation numbers as a reason why all these changes are happening. That’s a false lead. The truth is that SPL leadership has modified their collections policy to penalize users: higher interlibrary loan fees, fewer materials allowed for withdrawal at any time, higher late fees. SPL employees believe these changes were made to discourage use of materials, to further the anti-book policies we’re seeing under Turner and the board.

So here’s a riddle for you: if a library is anti-book and anti-librarian, is it still a library? We think the answer is no, and we bet a lot of Seattle agrees with us. The anger you’ve seen in response to the branding survey is evidence that Seattle is not happy with Turner and the Board's leadership. The rebranding issue is a symptom of a much larger problem, and Seattle is slowly coming to realize exactly how deep that problem runs.

Everyone we interviewed said that morale at SPL has never been lower than it is right now. Many of them believe it’s only going to get worse. The worst thing for most of these employees is the sheer feeling of powerlessness that pervades their workdays. They’re trying to introduce their neighbors to resources that can help make Seattle a better place to live, and they’re being thwarted at every turn by the bizarre choices of management — a management that they believe is trying to undermine their very mission statement, to undo all those decades of hard work that they’ve put into SPL. These are good people who are on the front lines — librarians who help kids learn to read and help adults find jobs and help immigrants get the resources they need to become proud Americans. They work on a daily basis with homeless populations, at-risk youth, and people who feel as though society has forgotten about them. And now they feel that their own organization has forgotten about them.

We believe the reaction to the rebranding survey was so vehement and so passionate in part because the people of Seattle, finally, have become aware of what SPL management has done to their library. We believe the people of Seattle, too, feel powerless in the face of all this change. And they’re responding with a raw and righteous anger.

As we understand it, Turner answers to the library board and the library board, basically, answers to no one. The mayor institutes members of the board — we still have a member from the Nickels administration — but aside from some poorly scheduled meetings that are open to public comment, SPL leadership has not really been accountable to the public for years now.

The library is supposed to support and encourage the free dissemination of information, but it’s right now fighting against transparency. Turner is generally not available to his librarians, the public, or the press. Management does not invite or welcome comments from ground-level employees. In the past, SPL Director and Public Disclosure Officer Andra Addison has asked Paul Constant to reveal the names of librarians who spoke to him under condition of anonymity. SPL leadership appears to be encouraging a culture of silence and fear among its employees. This is antithetical to the idea of a public library.

We believe that the people of Seattle would be outraged if they heard just a quarter of the stories we’ve heard over the last two weeks. If these allegations are true — that Turner and the board have propagated an anti-book, anti-librarian agenda in Seattle Public Library — we believe the people of Seattle would demand immediate changes in library leadership. We are pro-information. We are pro-technology. But we love our books, and we love our librarians, and some awkward corporate-speak is not going to convince us otherwise.

Seattle does not want to lose its libraries because a few mediocre managers failed to lead at the moment when their leadership was needed most. We demand change — transparent change — at the top of the organization. If Turner and the Board are not willing to supply that change, we demand new leadership that understands the wishes of the people and knows how to implement our agenda.

SPL cannot keep going down this road to ruination. We love our libraries, and we demand that Seattle Public Library carry the torch of knowledge for generations to come.


Paul Constant and Martin McClellan

Co-founders, the Seattle Review of Books