Op ed: Seattle's libraries need a makeover for the digital world
The voter-approved library levy was just a Band-Aid solution. Our library need to fundamentally change how it designs and staffs its branches.
Special to The Seattle Times
THE library is dying. All across the country, branches are closing, shelves are shrinking, and budgets are tightening, in Seattle's case, by an estimated $5 million. Fewer and fewer librarians can find jobs, and those who do find themselves underutilized and underappreciated.
Most people don't grasp the full extent of this decay. After all, most people haven't set foot inside a library since Seattle had a basketball team. Why would they? In this new information age, we have smartphones, high-speed Internet, Wikipedia, Kindles and Nooks. The entirety of human knowledge is never more than a few clicks or taps away.
The library levy that voters approved in the Aug. 7 primary election, Seattle Proposition No. 1, is nothing more than a Band-Aid. The only solution -- the only way to rescue this exalted and ancient institution of ours -- is to completely restructure the library around 21st-century realities. This new library -- a Library 2.0, if you will -- can be broken into two parts: library design and library staff.
First, we need to change the layout of the branches and prioritize the needs of the modern patron. Nowadays, people come to the library to gather with friends and neighbors, to study in a peaceful environment, to watch DVDs and flip through magazines or to browse the Internet for free. As any librarian will tell you, they rarely come to read books.
We need to replace the dusty shelves and crusty books with more desks, conference rooms and computer terminals. Computers are the new gateways to the vast sea of human knowledge, and the library's floor plan should reflect that fact. Keep the books, but store them in an off-site depository. Redesign the online-library catalog to make browsing a more pleasant experience. Enhance the fleet of book-delivery trucks to reduce transit time.
Second, we need to streamline our corps of librarians because their skills are needed now more than ever. Librarians are experts at sifting through large quantities of information. In an age where there is simply too much for one human mind to process -- when we are bombarded with information every time we log on to the Internet -- these professionals can help guide the way.
Specifically, we need to create a librarian portal, where each librarian is tagged with his or her specialty (history, sports, cooking). Whenever any patron asks a question in-person, over the phone or online, the librarian with the most expertise is automatically alerted. He or she would leverage information-management skills -- as well as a deep understanding of library databases -- to pull the perfect book or find the perfect online resource. Best of all, they can provide assistance remotely, from another branch or from home.
These changes are radical and they are hard to swallow. I myself hesitated in endorsing them. As the son of a librarian, I was raised in the stacks. The children's fiction section was my playground, and, to my shame growing up, I was the kid who knew his 13-digit library-card number by heart.
But at 22, I am also a Kindle-reading, Wikipedia-surfing, smartphone-tapping member of my generation. I know, and I think we all know, that the old notion of a library is dying.
Fortunately, we have the means to save it. We do not need more levies or even a permanent budget increase. What we need is to restructure and reorganize the resources we already have. What we need are city leaders with political courage and a willingness to innovate.
What we need is Library 2.0. It would be a shame to let this institution die on our watch.
George Hageman recently graduated from Harvard University. His father, Bob Hageman, is a retired librarian who worked for Seattle Public Library.