The theme of our Midwinter coverage is “Resolutions,” as we get ready to say good-bye to 2012 and embark on a new year. For your last column of 2012, we want to get your impressions on what has been an eventful year for libraries. Generally, how do you feel about the year that was for libraries? What’s made you happy, what’s driven you nuts, and what do you hope for 2013?
What’s made me most happy this year vis-à-vis libraries are the same two things that always make me happy: first, the knowledge that there are so many creative and dedicated librarians out there making sure that the needs of their community are not only met but exceeded. I know they’re there, because I’ve met them at the various libraries and conferences where I’ve spoken, and I hear from many of them often.
Second, the knowledge that despite the many challenges facing public libraries these days, there are still creative, smart, tech-savvy, and customer-service–oriented students whose career goals are focused on working in a public library. I know there are students like this because I am lucky enough to get to teach some of them at the University of Washington.
I’m also pleased that it appears that some positive movement, however small, has been made regarding e-books. I applaud the media kit recently released by ALA; I think it will be extremely useful when librarians talk to their patrons about the whole can of e-book worms.
I’m still thrilled that ALA/RUSA is partnering with Carnegie Corporation to sponsor the “Carnegies”—an annual award for the best work of fiction and best work of nonfiction. I hope that libraries will work to promote the award to their patrons so that it can achieve the status of the “Big 3” U.S. literary awards (those being, of course, the Pulitzer, National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle). And I would love to see the publishers get behind this award in a major way as well.
Now, what I’m most frustrated by is that despite all the great talent out there, there are still too many librarians who believe that it’s okay to sit patiently at the reference desk and wait for people to come to them for help rather than taking a proactive approach and asking patrons if they’re finding everything they need. In recent years the library profession as a whole has talked a lot about the importance of customer service. Indeed, I don’t think I’ve ever been at a library conference or staff day that didn’t have a session on the topic. Now, however, more than ever, I believe that libraries are (or should be) all about building relationships through good customer service. Living, not just giving lip service, to those three words—good customer service—will ensure the future of public libraries.
It must be nice to have ALA Midwinter come to your backyard—Seattle. What has always been most impressive about the city is that it really values its libraries. Seattle is always ranked #1 or #2 when it comes to the most literate American cities; for example, you have a relatively new, beautiful main branch—and this year, a year when our fragile economy was all we heard about, Seattle residents comfortably approved a generous levy to fund library operations. What better city for the library community to kick off 2013 in.
Seattle is indeed a wonderful city: wonderful to live in, and wonderful to visit. Maybe not in January! But wonderful, still! The food scene is also outstanding (and I’ll be happy to offer recommendations if you want to seek me out). And while you are here, there are a lot of terrific bookstores, in both Seattle and the surrounding metropolitan area (King County)—Elliott Bay Book Company, University Book Store, and Third Place Books in Ravenna are all very easy to get to by public transportation from the downtown area. For used books, don’t miss Magus, a Seattle institution, which is located in the University district just two short blocks from University Book Store. And if you’re in the neighborhood, stop and visit the University of Washington’s Suzzallo Library, which was renovated in 2000, updating much of the interior but keeping its fabulous exterior intact.
And you’re right about Seattle loving its libraries. When it comes to supporting libraries, Seattleites have been willing to walk the talk. Way back in 1998 Seattle residents voted to spend $196.4 million, plus another $80 million privately raised, to build or renovate each one of the 27 branch libraries and to replace the Central Library with the beautiful Rem Koolhaas–designed building.
Unfortunately, shortly afterward the economy tanked, and SPL has been struggling with funding ever since. The soft economy has led to cuts in open hours and staffing and a slashed materials budget, as well as unpaid staff furloughs. But as you noted, earlier this year SPL went back to the voters to ask for a tax levy for basic operating expenses. That vote, too, was successful, which was especially impressive given that even many library lovers felt uneasy about asking voters to fund basic operating expenses as opposed to those being part of the city’s budget. But in the end, the measure passed by a comfortable margin. Certainly, that is something other library systems can look to for inspiration.
Of course, it’s not just residents of Seattle who support their libraries. Surrounding Seattle is the King County Library System, and a little further north up I-5 is the Sno-Isle system, both enthusiastically and generously supported by their communities.
And Seattle area readers can also proudly point to the large number of writers in their midst—a group, I’d argue, that is unmatched by most other metropolitan areas (with the exception of Brooklyn, of course). They include, in no particular order, Matt Ruff, Laurie Frankel, Jennie Shortridge, Erica Bauermeister, Garth Stein, Ivan Doig, G. Willow Wilson, Jess Walter, Julia Quinn, Jayne Ann Krentz, Carol Cassella, Randy Sue Coburn, Kevin O’Brien, Peter Mountford, William Dietrich, Mike Lawson, Susan Wiggs, Elizabeth George, and the list goes on.
I know we’ll all have a lot to discuss at Midwinter, and I hope everyone will enjoy starting their year with a visit to the great Pacific Northwest.
To help get you excited for your visit, here is a list of my favorite books (both fiction and non-) about Seattle and the Pacific Northwest:
The Living by Annie Dillard
The Good Rain: Across Time & Terrain in the Pacific Northwest by Timothy Egan
The Jump-Off Creek by Molly Gloss
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
Truth Like the Sun by Jim Lynch
No-No Boy by John Okada
Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings by Jonathan Raban
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed by John Vaillant