WHEN SEATTLE'S new Central Library opened six years ago, architecture critics tripped over each other's superlatives to rave about it — The New York Times' Herbert Muschamp declaring the towering glass-and-steel polygon "a blazing chandelier to swing your dreams upon."

Share story

WHEN SEATTLE’S new Central Library opened six years ago, architecture critics tripped over each other’s superlatives to rave about it — The New York Times’ Herbert Muschamp declaring the towering glass-and-steel polygon “a blazing chandelier to swing your dreams upon.”

More than 28,000 people crammed into the building on its first day, marveling at its chartreuse escalators, blood-red corridor and soaring glass public areas.

Seattle had reached the upper echelons of cool with the most proletarian of spaces. But the Central Library was just the centerpiece of a massive campaign that transformed and prettified the city’s entire 27-branch library system.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

It was a fairy-tale triumph in what seems, in the clarifying light of our recessionary gaze, like a bygone Golden Age.

Too bad Susan Hildreth missed out on all that.

As the city’s new head librarian, hired early last year, she didn’t get one minute to bask in the afterglow of the “Libraries for All Campaign” and the hoopla that surrounded it. From the beginning, she instead has had to grapple with more basic matters like how to keep the doors open for a library system facing painful budget cuts as city funds continue to dry up in a still-sluggish economy.

Now Seattle’s libraries may have a new challenge, this one involving Hildreth herself.

The same late-September week Mayor Mike McGinn announced deep cuts to the library system’s budget and an overhaul of the system’s management, President Barack Obama tapped Hildreth to be director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency that gives grants for educational programs to the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums.

On top of the financial crisis, the libraries might be left without a strong advocate at the helm who can push for much-needed funds at City Hall and nurture relationships with a public already frustrated by cuts to operating hours at branches and changes in services aimed at addressing the reversal of fortunes.

Should the U.S. Senate confirm Hildreth, she could be on her way to the other Washington by year’s end, leaving behind a library system that has no brighter financial outlook than it had on the day she started.

Hildreth, 59, is a meticulous analyst who knows her way around a multimillion-dollar budget. But she’s also a strident believer in the democratizing power of information. This combination of traits, her supporters have said, makes her the perfect person to argue the case for libraries — not just the buildings themselves but the very idea of them in the Digital Age.

If that’s true, then it won’t be easy to find an equal in her replacement.

Hildreth has spent much of this year telling all who will listen that people need libraries more than ever to check out books they can’t afford to buy, to study, to search online for jobs and to interact in an all-welcoming space. Seattle’s libraries offer 400 free programs, from English-as-a-second-language classes to tutoring for school children, making them more like community centers.

“We’re one of the key bastions of democracy,” Hildreth says one day in her 11th-floor office in the futuristic Central Library building. “We’re providing the equalizer in society.”

Her new job, if confirmed, will be to put her beliefs to work on the national stage and to back up her words with hundreds of millions of dollars in grants.

Her Carnegie-esque outlook on libraries is no anachronism. The way people access information has changed, but the need to do so hasn’t.

Just as the Industrial Age required people to embrace new technology if they wanted to move up in life, the Digital Age demands that people know how to navigate computers and the web and be able to compete in a globalized marketplace. For this reason, the Federal Communications Commission says libraries should be on the front lines for promoting online literacy.

It’s not happenstance that the first thing you see when entering most of the city’s library branches is a bank of computers among the more familiar rows of books. The Central Library itself, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, possesses the chic sparseness of a tech firm — not exactly the sort of place you’d want to curl up with a timeworn classic. Yet at a Seattle City Council committee briefing this past summer, Hildreth told council members the library is not a discretionary “nice-to-have” service but a vital one for some 45,000 households that don’t have Internet access, among other library users.

The library’s web survey of 33,000 Seattle residents found that 62 percent of them visit a city library two or more times a month and 38 percent said they visited a library at least once a week.

A related national study by the Gates Foundation and University of Washington Information School found that a fifth of Seattle-area residents rely on the public library system’s 1,000 computers as their sole source of Internet access. That figure is even higher among low-income households, blacks and Latinos.

The top reasons people use library computers are for social connection, education and employment.

Seattle’s libraries, which drew 14 million visitors last year, have become the city’s communal living rooms. But there’s less and less money to keep them open.

“With the rise of the Internet, many people thought it would replace what libraries do,” says study author Michael Crandall, who chairs the UW’s information-management master’s program. “The study shows that’s not the case.”

Still, from Los Angeles to Boston, libraries are slashing budgets and fighting for top position among a host of civic priorities needing money, from police and fire departments to schools.

Hildreth, who was appointed head of California’s state library by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004 and before that headed San Francisco’s city and county library system, bore witness to the ugly budget battles in that state, so she’s no stranger to the delicate politics involved in allocating money. Navigating the full-contact politics of D.C. will be no different.

In Seattle, which pays for libraries out of the city’s general fund, the budget is pretty straightforward. But so are the options for cuts: 75 percent of the roughly $50 million annual budget goes to paying the salaries of about 650 staff; 11 percent goes to purchasing books and other materials; the rest goes to fixed costs such as utilities.

“We don’t have a lot of latitude,” Hildreth says.

Last year, branches were open six to seven days a week, but Hildreth knew she couldn’t sustain that level in 2010. This year, to save money and avoid layoffs, 15 of the 26 branches went down to being open just five days a week. For the second year, the entire library system shut down for a week this past summer.

Hildreth and the Library Board of Trustees, which oversees operations, have decided they want to maintain the same reduced hours next year, and close the libraries again for a week next summer.

“You don’t have much left other than looking at staff,” Hildreth says of possible trims to the budget. Layoffs for next year aren’t on the table, at least not yet.

At a recent meeting of the board, trustees used words like “severe” and “devastating” to assess the potential impact of 2011 cuts on the public.

The mayor’s proposed library budget for 2011 is $50.2 million, $3.7 million less than this year. Among other things, it slashes more than $700,000 from the fund to purchase materials such as books. The weeklong systemwide closure will save about $650,000. The board is also asking the union representing library employees to accept a 0.6 percent cost-of-living raise for next year rather than the 2 percent raise originally agreed to.

Among the changes to services: City libraries have reduced the number of books a customer can place on hold and check out at any given time, freeing up popular titles for more people. The move didn’t go unnoticed, and some library patrons were miffed at first. Hildreth counters that the 2.3 million-book collection is more accessible now. Late fees on overdue materials will also go up next year.

The toughest cut to stomach, however, has been to opening hours for the branches.

“The challenge with a furlough,” Hildreth cautions, “is it’s a big hole in services” at a time of increased need because of the economy.

The closures and furloughs do save money and are a more efficient way of handling the shortfall, Library Board acting president Marie McCaffrey says. “I think we have done a really good job under the circumstance of a strained budget . . . We’ll do the best with what we have.”

McGinn’s proposed cuts are only about half as deep as the worst-case scenario board members had feared. Nevertheless, City Councilmember Richard Conlin, who heads the committee that oversees libraries, says the current funding system isn’t viable. The council plans to look at alternatives such as creating a voter-approved operating levy similar to the taxing district that funds the King County libraries.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE a decade makes.

In 1998, Hildreth’s predecessor, Deborah Jacobs, managed to persuade a city that is notoriously cranky about big-ticket public-works projects to approve a whopping $196 million bond measure that would be used to renovate or rebuild 26 branches and construct the new Central Library.

But it’s not just that Jacobs’ “Libraries for All” drive succeeded at the ballot box, a feat in and of itself, even considering the fact that 1998 was a very good year in the region’s tech-boom economy.

The run-up to the bond measure, during which Jacobs held 100 public meetings to get feedback on her plans, showed her willingness to involve residents of economically and racially disparate neighborhoods and incorporate their “hopes and dreams” in the design plans for the branches they frequented. It was a triumph of community engagement in a city that often bogs itself down in bitter “process” fights.

“I was worried that we couldn’t find someone who could replace Deborah,” Conlin says, but Hildreth has done “a great job,” especially with regard to her responsiveness to community concerns and city officials.

Dave McShea, president of the Seattle Public Library Foundation, a nonprofit organization that raises money for the system, says Hildreth has been “the ideal leader for the library, given the phase the library’s in.”

But the libraries aren’t dependent on a single personality to generate support. Hildreth points out that while the financial picture looks bleak, the city’s libraries fare better than most systems, with spending per capita that’s more than twice the national average.

Plus, the libraries have admirers willing to step up in hard times. Earlier this year, an anonymous caller phoned the Library Foundation to express concern about the system’s financial woes. On the spot, the caller pledged a $500,000 challenge gift to supplement the books-and-materials budget as well as homework-help programs, a huge gesture, so long as the public matches it.

HERE’S THE KIND of thing that has to tug at a mayor’s or city librarian’s heartstrings as they consider cutting already diminished services. At a community meeting hosted by McGinn in March, a 10-year-old named Ezekiel gave the mayor a letter he wrote urging him to restore library hours.

“In Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade, we used to take field trips on Fridays to the Northgate library,” he explained in the letter. “Now it’s closed on Fridays, so the little kids at my school can’t go there for field trips. Lots of times my mom can’t get me to the library until after work or on the weekends. Mostly we just go on Saturdays, because we can’t go on Sundays or many weekdays.”

Ezekiel will not get much relief anytime soon.

On days when certain branches are closed, branches that are open can get deluged, says Francesca Wainwright, manager of the Greenwood and Green Lake branches in North Seattle. Free programs, like computer courses, are always full; and during the week at free story-time readings, some branches are swamped with children.

“We see everyone in the community from folks who don’t have anywhere to live to families with children to older adults to students who are doing college research,” Wainwright says.

“We recognize this is a tough time, but libraries are a very essential service for a lot of people,” says Deborah Prince, president of yet another support group, the Friends of the Seattle Public Library.

But for one more year at least, library visitors will have to settle for less.

IN A 2008 Seattle Times Q&A, architect Koolhaas captured some of the thrill of a bricks-and-mortar, or in his case steel-and-glass, library that you just can’t replicate online.

Koolhaas says of his groundbreaking design for the continuous-spiral arrangement of bookshelves at its core: “. . . We felt that one of the points of a library was that there are accidents, and that you find yourself in areas where you didn’t expect to be and where you kind of look at books that are not necessarily the books that you’re aiming for. So it was to create a kind of almost arbitrariness — or to create a kind of walking experience, an almost kind of urban walk.”

As Prince of the Friends puts it, “There’s the serendipity of being in the building. You can talk to real people and find resources you didn’t know about.”

Maybe that’s why the city that gave birth to Amazon.com, which got its start selling books online, loves its physical libraries so much.

Whether it’s the Old World grandeur of Carnegie libraries such as Douglass-Truth in the Leschi neighborhood or the refreshing lightness of the new Beacon Hill branch, form nourishes function. But it also nourishes us.

Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.