Will our libraries make it through the recession?

By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly

The International/Chinatown branch of Seattle Public Library, like other branches, have faced budget cuts this year. However, administrators are optimistic that the libraries will weather the economic storm. (Photo by Han Bui/NWAW)

During these trying economic times, organizations have dealt with budget cuts, often leading to reduced hours of operation and elimination of positions, programs, and services.

The Seattle Public Library (SPL) is no exception.

Officials have had to cut the library’s 2010 budget by $3 million, leaving roughly $49 million. SPL Communications Director Andra Addison said this money is mainly used for two things: operational costs such as library staff and resources for patron use, such as books, DVDs, and electronic services. In addition, a small amount of the budget is set aside for utilities and other fixed expenses.

In an effort to save money this year, Addison said SPL has eliminated positions and cut the resource budget from roughly $5.7 million to $5.2 million. Operating hours have also been reduced — 15 of the library’s 27 branches are now closed every Friday and Sunday — and SPL will shut down from Aug. 30 to Sept. 6 to help make up for the $3 million shortfall.

Addison, who has been with SPL for 15 years, said the library’s budget has had both increases and cuts over the last 10 years. However, in recent years, there have been more cuts.

“We’ve been pretty lean the last several years because of the prolonged economic downturn,” she said.
But one thing SPL has not done during these tough times is close or consolidate any of its branches. In fact, it has done the opposite. As a result of the $290.7 million Libraries for All bond approved by voters in 1998, SPL has opened four new branches in communities that previously had no library service.

Addison said people confuse the bond money, which pays for capital construction, with operating funds, which comes from the city’s general fund.

“The Libraries for All bond was a construction bond voters approved specifically to pay for improvements to the buildings [and to build new branches],” she said. “By law, that money can only be used for those building projects approved by the voters. That money cannot be used for operating libraries.”

One new branch is the International District (ID)/Chinatown branch, located at 713 Eighth Avenue South.
Wei Cai has been with SPL for 15 years in various capacities, but for the last two years, she has been branch manager of the ID/Chinatown branch, which opened in June 2005. Since taking over the position, Cai has worked to make her branch a part of the ID community. “My responsibility is to provide a welcoming environment for everyone using [the library],” she said.

Cai, who also manages SPL’s Beacon Hill branch, attends public meetings to provide a library presence and learn how to better serve her patrons. And she feels she has been successful.

“We’ve had so many positive reactions,” Cai said. “[People tell me], ‘I’m just so happy to have a library here.’ We are heavily used by the community.”

Because of its location, the ID/Chinatown branch has the most concentrated collection of Asian language materials in the SPL. Cai said they have visitors ranging from those who live in the ID to international visitors sightseeing in the ID.

Sue Taoka, former executive director of the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDPDA), said, “The [SCID]PDA built the building that the ID library is in. As we were putting together plans … we heard from many residents, young and old, that a library was a much needed community asset. …

“Libraries are particularly important during economic downturns,” said Taoka. “Residents need to have access to information and entertainment, during tough economic times. Libraries provide this access at no cost. And even more important to the API immigrant community is the availability of information in a variety of languages as well as news from their homeland.”

While many businesses and organizations have suffered during the recession, SPL has thrived in a way.

Despite budget cuts, both Cai and Addison stated that there has actually been an increase in library usage.

In 2009, 118,055 people visited the 3,930 square-foot ID/Chinatown branch, which circulated 131,999 books and materials that year. Addison said people are checking out more materials but that there are other reasons why people go to the library.

“People come to the libraries to use computers that they might not be able to afford themselves, to research jobs or develop resumes, to find out how to start a small business, to learn English, to become financially literate, and more,” she said.

Addison added that people are taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi, programs, and software the library offers.

Although times are tough and the future still looks bleak, Addison and Cai see the future of public libraries as anything but that. Cai said that in her time with SPL, she has never seen the library attendance dip and does not see it doing so anytime soon.

“I think the library will always be the heart of a community,” she said. “If we keep ourselves relevant to the community we serve, we will be here forever.” ♦

Samantha Pak can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

2 Responses to “Will our libraries make it through the recession?”

  1. Tiffany says:

    Great article, Sam. Right up your alley!

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