Seattle's Ever-Renewing Relationship with the Public Library
When threatened with a lockdown—which, given our recent bouts of snow and viral contagion, we’ve become somewhat accustomed to—Seattleites empty shelves citywide. Toilet paper at QFC. Kale at PCC. And Peak Picks at SPL, culled to the display stands’ bare wire frames.
Seattle Public Library’s monthslong Covid closure, during which employees hustled to extend due dates and offer curbside services, wasn’t the first time the library was forced to shut its doors. After a 1901 fire lit the Yesler Mansion and most of its 35,000 volumes aflame, the city’s dedication to its house of books surprised even benefactor Andrew Carnegie, who balked at the idea of funding a library in the “hot-air boom city” (per his secretary). Then he heard that Seattle would put up $50,000 a year to maintain it: “Is this an error in transmission?” His donation to Seattle was the largest, per capita, aside from the gift he made to his hometown in Scotland.
Circulation skyrocketed, from less than 500,000 in 1907, to three million in 1940, to over five million in 2019 in physical materials alone. “We have a well-educated population here in Seattle, and one that loves to read,” says chief librarian Tom Fay. But as the pandemic laid bare, the library covers far more than books.
“It’s the one place you can still go in this country that’s free, and you can just simply be,” Fay says. “You don’t have to pay to play.” Or to stay warm, or to use the restroom. The United States has “dismantled a lot of our social safety nets,” Fay says. Of course the results are “going to present themselves in probably the most democratic institution left in this country.” This year, the library launched a support group to assist staff with traumatic incidents, from patron drug use to harassment. The goal at SPL is to “bring our humanity forward every day,” Fay says, but “it will be strained and tested.”
Still, from wealthy donors to homebound seniors receiving book deliveries to patrons “who literally have nothing but the things on their back,” through fires and snowstorms and pandemics, Seattle returns to the library. “We have the full range of life,” Fay says. “With that comes everything—the good, the bad, and the indifferent. And guess what? Most of it’s good.”