Dear Seattle Public Library
By Jean Godden
Seattle Public Library, I love you. Yes, I know I'm not the only one. Besotted patrons -- estimated at more than half a million -- checked out more than 12 million digital and print items last year. They paid 17 million library visits -- some on line, most in person. They're true believers in one of the most admired and busiest library systems in the entire nation.
Seattle Public (if I may call you that), you've been around for ages. You can trace your roots to 1868, a mere 17 years after the Denny Party landed. That first library had mixed success, but it was saved by a Ladies Library Association that helped launch you as the Seattle Public Library.
In 1891, you opened in the Occidental Building on First Avenue as a city department, designed to receive 10 percent of city licenses and fines. You suffered through crises, tight budgets and moves into ever cheaper digs.
Things looked up with your move into the Yesler Mansion, but you had only a couple of posh years before a disastrous 1901 fire struck. Then, out of the blue, Andrew Carnegie, the library-loving philanthropist, stepped forward and donated $200,000 to build a "fireproof" library, provided Seattle would buy a new site and guarantee annual maintenance.
In following decades, you received more Carnegie gifts and established a network of branches. There were fat times and lean ones, but you endured and expanded, acquiring two important pillars, the Friends of the Library and the Seattle Library Foundation.
There's way more history, more cliff-hangers. Through it all, the voters have shown their love for you, Seattle Public. In 1998, nearly 70 percent approved the landmark "Libraries for All" bond measure, largest in the United States. That helped build your much-admired 11-story main library and well as renovate all 26 branches. Then, with a lingering recession hobbling the city in 2012, 62 percent of the voters said "yes" to a library levy to keep the system whole and avoid shuttering branches.
Today, once again, you face a cliff. With the 2012 levy expiring, the Seattle City Council wants to rescue you with a renewed levy on the August 6 primary ballot. Proposition No. 1 is almost $100 million more than the $123 million 2012 levy. The increased funds are needed to keep up with inflation and make critical seismic repairs.
But there are problems. Some naysayers complain Seattle ought somehow to keep the library operating within the general fund budget, rather than depending on a levy supplement. Given the realities of a summer primary and the distraction of national politics, there are real fears of a levy failure.
This simply cannot be. The Seattle Times, definitely no pushover when it comes to supporting tax measure, is firm in stating that this levy is required "to provide needed capital to a valued community resource." The Times argued that a "yes" vote is essential.
Among the Times' arguments was the stark fact that levy dollars cover one-fourth of Seattle Public Library's operation and maintenance costs. There have been no threats, but wouldn't a levy loss mean one-quarter of service hours would be cut or branches shuttered? Say it isn't so.
Seattle Public, you are way more than a book lender. Last year, more than 300,000 children, teens and adults attended more than 10,000 free education classes and activities throughout the library, including English-as-a-second-language classes, literacy programs, one-on-one business help for entrepreneurs, homework help for students, author readings, free income-tax preparation, computer literacy workshops and more.
You, Seattle Public, are valued, treasured by our citizens, who, like me, love the job you do. I remember one Columbia City resident who signed up to speak at a City Council budget hearing, held at the Rainier Arts Center in 2012. He had a blunt message: "The Library. Don't cut the library. My kids would tell you so. Only they aren't here; they're next door at the library."
Seattle Public, you are worth the estimated $7 a month for the average household. What is that in Seattle terms -- two lattes? Your many services more than repay our investment. I wouldn't want to call you a cheap date. But then I love you too much.
Just to be clear, it's not $7 per month to most of us who must pay for this levy. That number is derived by dividing the total levy by population. But, the cost is borne 100% by homeowners. I think a more accurate figure is about $17 per month. I'm not saying whether or not it's worth it. Rather, I'm weary of every levy that gets distilled to some "just a latte" or whatever. These add up to quite a large tax bill that is a struggle for many of us to pay. I would not mind seeing a few taxes that fall on the shoulders of everyone, not just homeowners. And, it would not be so bad if those running the city didn't spend like drunken sailors on everything in sight. Can we live within our means for once?