Out of 27 Seattle Public Library branches that can be found in the city, 22 have reopened. Seattle Public Library Head of Communications Laura Gentry explained the goal is to have as many libraries as possible open with pre-pandemic operating hours ahead of the new school year. Currently, hours of operation vary from location to location, which is something Gentry attributes to low staffing numbers due to budget cuts.
“In 2020 and 2021, every city department had their general fund budget cut,” Gentry said. “We sustained a 10% cut during that, which means that we lost somewhere around 40 to 50 people. Now with the Seattle Rescue Plan being passed, we’ll be able to start hiring for those positions, and we’re already starting to do that, but it’s going to take a little while to get the staffing numbers back up.”
On June 22, the Central Library opened back up to the public, and more SPL locations have followed in the weeks since. Branches are operating at 100% capacity, but patrons must wear masks while inside.
According to Gentry, SPL saw roughly a 35% increase in digital use in 2020. “People really started reading e-books; they really started listening to audiobooks and changing their reader behavior. So now, it’s going to be interesting to see if it changes back,” Gentry said.
Jennifer Bisson, the teen services librarian at Greenwood Library, said that people have been flooding through her doors since their reopening three weeks ago.
Bisson said in-person storytime will not be coming back for the rest of the year, because small children can’t get vaccinated. “We really can’t be bringing populations together who can’t get vaccinated in small spaces,” Bisson explained.
Bisson said two or three people could meet together at a table if they’re in a group. People can also use the computers, which the library has increased from an hour and half to two-hour increments. Restrooms, water fountains, cooling centers and books are all open to the public, and Bisson encourages people to come in and use all the facilities libraries have to offer.
Bisson explained people forget libraries aren’t just a place to house books but provide an essential space for people to study, cool off from hot temperatures and have access to electricity and Wi-Fi.
“These are some of the big things that people were missing while we were closed,” Bisson said. “We found that a lot of people could not charge their cell phones, which is a massive safety issue for all kinds of people.”
Bisson said there is a limit for book checkout: 50 books per library card. While this limit might sound high, she often sees families with young children exceed the limit.
“If you have three kids, and they’re all under the age of six or seven, and you’re still reading picture books, you may go through literally 25 to 40 a week,” she explained. Bisson said picture books are also costly and the numbers quickly add up.
For most places in society with resources, patrons have to pay to use them. Libraries, on the other hand, are free. Bisson finds this creates a unique space that forces people from every strata within a community to interact, from very young children to the elderly.
“There’re not a lot of places in the world left that you can just kind of scan and borrow and not have to think about the cost of it or, like, there’s not a commitment,” Bisson said. “I always give kids three books, when I’m doing reader advisory, and they’ll be like, ‘I just want one,’ and I’m like, ‘Take all three.’ … There’s no cost to try something new.”
Bisson said the amount of new library card sign-ups since they’ve been opened has been huge, and she’s excited to meet a fresh crop of faces this coming year.
Samira George covers real people living real lives in the Puget Sound. Follow her on Twitter @samirakgeorge.
Read more of the July 21-27, 2021 issue.